Thursday, October 30, 2014

"NASA Rocket Explodes!" ...Wrong

     Oh, a rocket did explode yesterday; it launched from a NASA facility, it was even carrying a NASA payload and what's more, NASA wrote the check to pay for the flight.  Why, idiots at news services keep writing "NASA Rocket!" in headlines--

     But it wasn't a "NASA rocket."  The days of NASA acting as its own general contractor, doing much of the initial design, parceling out various parts of a project among interested bidders, overseeing testing, having endless meetings, having to answer to Congressional desires that all the important districts get a share of the work--  Those days are gone, at least when it comes to hauling groceries to ISS and taking out the trash.  This was as much a "NASA rocket" as a UPS truck leaving an warehouse stuffed to the gills with smiling boxes is an "Amazon Truck."  The rocket was built by Orbital Sciences, Avis to SpaceX's Hertz and a part of the very same Commercial Orbital Transport Service/Commercial Resupply Service programs, under which NASA hires companies to deliver cargo much as you or I would hire furniture-moving companies: it's their own business to keep their truck running.

     Orbital Science's truck crashed and burned.  It happens.  SpaceX blew up a few early on, too. I believe Mr. Musk's firm has a lot more flight time on their design and with rockets, actual time under actual flight conditions are still necessary to success.  Even then, it's not a sure thing; the Russians have been launching Proton boosters since 1965 and have had a few fairly spectacular losses. Their R-7 Semyorka/Soyuz boosters go back to 1961, with hugely more launches than any other booster, and they fail, too. Recent failures have been less dramatic but back in 2002, a first-stage failure worse than yesterday's Antares wreck at Wallops Island killed one observer, ruined the payload and damaged the launch pad.   Rockets fail.

     The interesting part to me is the price of this failure.  NASA's Orion program has a $12 billion price tag; the entire COTS program, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences combined, cost $800 million.  And COTS has put the hardware to work, while Orion remains mires in politics and the old-school, bureaucracy-heavy NASA culture, geared more towards pleasing Presidents and Congresses than putting materials and people into space.  And perhaps they have to be -- which is all the more reason to let NASA deal with the politics and put the nuts and bolts side up for bids.  Will there be failures?  Count on it.  There have been failures, deadly failures, under NASA, too.  Space travel isn't safe. --Neither was air travel, early on.  It's an engineering problem and a practical experience problem and the more time is spent at it, the more solutions will be found.

     "NASA Rocket Explodes," harrumpf.  Orbital Sciences lost a payload and messed up a launch pad.  They'll learn from it and try again.
CNN at least edited their headline.  CNBC, not so much.


Fuzzy Curmudgeon said...

Looks like two amateur radio cubesats were lost in this one.

But yeah, it was ever thus. Stuff done gets blowed up sometimes when playing with rocketry. What's amazing is that somehow so few of them divert to the "blowed up" stage and actually make it to orbit.

Anonymous said...

Well said! As usual some NASA folks are already calling for "increased oversight". In other words, hire more NASA folks to watch the contractors. That'll work! Not!
Former rocket scientist

Ken said...

At one feed I read there was a lot of back-and-forth about Elon Musk's dismissive remarks about Orbital Science's boosters. My comment was "How cool is it that we're having a Chevy/Ford/Mopar argument about which private space firm's technology is superior?"

Me, I'm a Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic guy from waaaay back. "Burning rubber to the stars, baby!" Now all I need is a Big Daddy Roth-style cartoon of Rat Fink driving SpaceShip Two. ;-)

...ironically or otherwise, the comment security image is "1701." :-)

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

Rocketry is, at it's base, a controlled explosion. If everything doesn't work right after ignition, there's a strong chance that the "controlled" part of that equation goes away - usually fairly emphatically.

Robin said...

From what I understand, the engines are actually Soviet built.

No, not a typo. Soviet built. In the '60's, found in a Siberian warehouse, refurbished and sold to us.

Roberta X said...

Correct! And something over thirty years old, too.

Robin said...

** looks at drivers' license birthdate **


Anonymous said...

"Our rockets always blow up, and our boys always botch it."

I wonder: what is the failure rate of boosters vs, say cars or TV sets?

Roberta X said...

Robin: explode much?

Jake (formerly Riposte3) said...

And now Virgin Galactic's Spaceship 2 exploded. The latest report (for what it's worth) is one fatality and one "major injury".

Bad week for spaceflight.

Roberta X said...

Yes, it has been.