Few events are as spectacular as a successful rocket launch, but a failed one comes close. On June 28, an unfortunate in-flight anomaly during the Falcon 9’s CRS-7 mission showered SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk with fireworks for his 44th birthday.
Although a rocket failure is always a depressing event, this was exceptionally ill-timed for the International Space Station due to the recent failures of Russia’s Soyuz rocket carrying its Progress resupply capsule and Orbital ATK’s rocket with its Cygnus cargo spacecraft, both of which were also destined for the space station.
While SpaceX’s rocket exploded, its preliminary results show that it was due to a third-party strut in an upper-stage propellant tank performing worse than advertised; many are still confident about SpaceX’s star-bright future. However, the SpaceX, Orbital and Russian failures gave the media the perfect opportunity to trot out the cliché phrase, “Space is hard.”
While space is hard, so was commercial flying. There have been over 20,000 aircraft accidents since 1918. There have been only about 3,000 fewer accidents (17,000) when the timeframe is restricted from 1942 — the year the first rocket (Germany’s V2) could reach space — to today.
To recap history: The Wright brothers’ first flight was 112 years ago in 1903, and the first public records about accidents were from 97 years ago in 1918. Today, accounts of aircraft accidents that describe the type of calamity, the number of fatalities and the date are easily accessible to the community. Boeing and other companies exploit these reports to create safer airplanes. This safety is the collection of knowledge about risk converted into practice, and no other mode of transportation has been as expansive as flying in incorporating what investigations know about the fallibility of humans and machines. As a result, the act of hurtling through the air at nearly 900 kilometers per hour 10 kilometers above the ground is less prone to result in death than almost any other type of travel.
Yet even 73 years after Germany’s V2, aircrafts’ level of record keeping and record sharing is nonexistent for space travel.
This partially is due to the overly restrictive International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). Presently, numerous politicians view rockets solely as a weapon and therefore not something to share, or even possibly acknowledge, as opposed to rockets’ being viewed as a mode of transportation like aircraft. While a rocket is more dangerous than an aircraft, the American public has seen airplanes used as weapons also. Thus lawmakers and the public should not let the mentality that rockets are only weapons restrict the funding of rockets or the collaboration of rocket research and development. The legal framework needs to split rockets into realms based on their intended purpose. This will allow for collaborative and open research into the safety of rockets, which will propel space travel into the realm of comparable reliability. (It’s even imaginable that if ITAR did not exist, Elon Musk would release his rocket patents similar to the releasing of his Tesla Motors patents.)
Currently, out of the 5,471 total rocket launches since 1957, 91.6 percent have been successful; the rate of deaths due to spaceflight is less than the rate of deaths due to automobiles. If a quality rocket safety and reliability documentation system recorded information about the rocket type and configuration; payload and mission; launch site name and location; if mission failure occurred during launch, in space, or on return; reason for failure; lesson learned from failure; date; and number of fatalities, the reliability of rockets would exponentially increase.
Ornery industry organizations such as the International Atomic Energy Agency, World Association of Nuclear Operators and Institute of Nuclear Power Operations maintain similar records to the aforementioned reports suggested for the rocket industry. These organizations and the archives they keep aim to promote the peaceful use of their technology, achieve the highest standards of safety, and improve the sharing of operational experience respectively. A utopian society is not necessary for the promotion of the peaceful use of rockets.
The space exploration rocket industry does not need more regulations but could benefit from shared research and operational experience. The creation of an international organization that shares the lessons learned from the past failures of rocket development would make space travel a commonplace experience, a more understood science, and “easier.”
Lastly, since the invention of the first rocket, there has been the invention of the microprocessor, World Wide Web, 3-D printing and carbon fiber — all inventions that positively impacted the development of rockets. By 2054, rockets will have been around for the same duration as aircrafts currently are — 39 more years, or within a lifetime. Mankind has a giant leap to make in rocket maturity over this period if it is going to minimize the occurrence of rocket failures and become comparable to aircraft’s safety and reliability. With nominal technological progress, if the quality of data around rockets is on par with the quality of data currently recorded for aircraft, then there will be no reason for space to be hard.
Kevin Cheberenchick is an aerospace engineer who has conducted research into carbon fiber reusability, out-time and humidity. He has worked for multiple commercial space companies. Cheberenchick also periodically writes articles about the space industry. Follow him on Twitter at @kchebs.