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 Amazon.com 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.|