The real damage from yesterday’s rocket explosion

Oct 30, 2014

Image: NASA

By Fiona MacDonald

The Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket blasted off from Virginia in the US, yesterday, set to carry a range of supplies and experiments to the International Space Station (ISS). But just 15 seconds after launch the unmanned rocket exploded, and fell back onto the landing pad.

No one was hurt and the ISS has enough supplies to sustain its astronauts for almost six months, but sadly the rocket was carrying some pretty important scientific cargo.

“The greatest loss today has been the destruction of 18 student-led science projects into topics as diverse as how microgravity effects the growth of plants to milk spoiling in space,” said astronomer Alan Duffy from Swinburne University of Technology.

“I’m absolutely heart-broken for these students who have put so many months work into this.”

It’s also a tough day for Orbital Sciences Corporation, one of the three commercial partners that NASA has contracted to deliver supplies to the ISS. This was their third resupply mission for NASA. Their spacecraft alone was worth $200 million, which the company has admitted it had “some” insurance on.


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12 comments on “The real damage from yesterday’s rocket explosion

  • @OP Although nothing is proved as yet, there’s been speculation that there may have been fault in the Soviet rockets used in the spacecraft, which were originally developed in the ’60s to power a rocket to go to the Moon.

    NASA has outsourced this work on low-cost contracts!

    While investigations have yet to determine the cause, the use of cheap, decades old, second-hand, refurbished N1 Russian rocket engines, could be suspect!

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/10/29/antares-rocket-explosion-the-question-of-using-decades-old-soviet-engines/

    The Russians abandoned their Moon programme when all four heavy lift N1 rockets blew up on launch, one after the other!



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  • It’s a shame, but I sort of feel for NASA too, slightly. What can you do when your budget is quite as squeezed as NASA? Especially in the post-space-race era. This is not to exonerate them from their mistakes, but the entire guilt doesn’t exactly fall onto them, in my opinion.



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  • Stafford Gordon Oct 30, 2014 at 1:58 pm

    Oh yeah! Like they did with the Challenger disaster, when they tried to stymie Feynman’s investigation?

    After the loss of an early Apollo crew, and each of the two shuttle disasters, we keep hearing from NASA that “safety is no longer an optional extra” – when it can be afforded from the inadequate budgets allocated by politicians, and managers, but . . . .. . .

    @OP – “The greatest loss today has been the destruction of 18 student-led science projects into topics as diverse as how microgravity effects the growth of plants to milk spoiling in space,”

    The loss to science is probably much greater than the loss of the insured hardware!



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  • There is another private company space disaster here.

    https://uk.news.yahoo.com/virgin-galactic-spaceship-suffers-anomaly-183316149.html#FJiFT7w

    One person is dead and another injured after a Virgin Galactic suborbital rocket plane crashed on a powered test flight over California.

    The tragedy occurred after SpaceShipTwo fired its rocket motor following a high-altitude drop from Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo mothership.

    California Highway Patrol reported one fatality and one “major injury” after Friday’s incident.

    Virgin Galactic, part of Richard Branson’s Virgin Group, aims to begin space tourist flights to the edge of space next year.

    The company said in a statement to Sky News: “Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today.

    “During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.

    “The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely. Our first concern is the status of the pilots, which is unknown at this time.



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  • http://www.cbc.ca/news/world/virgin-galactic-space-tourists-could-be-grounded-by-faa-1.2501310

    What’s more, the FAA has not laid out safety rules like those for airlines and their planes, and there are no plans to do so until at least October 2015.

    “We have to have an operator’s licence to take people into space, and it’s obviously something that we need to deal with,” says Stephen Attenborough, the company’s commercial director.

    Known as a Reusable Launch Vehicle Mission Licence, this little document is the final piece of the commercial space travel puzzle that Virgin Galactic began assembling in 2004.

    Without it, only test-flight personnel like former astronauts and military pilots can fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, the most recent evolution of the company’s supersonic craft.

    “It’s one of our remaining major milestones. We will be the first, I hope, commercial operator to receive one of these licences for human space flight,” Attenborough says.

    Even the company’s billionaire owner, Sir Richard Branson, who has said publicly that he and his two adult children will be passengers on the first public flight, cannot legally fly in SpaceShipTwo until the licence is obtained.

    Legislation directly addressing commercial spaceflights was first tabled in 2004, the same year AST’s mandate was expanded to include privately financed manned missions.

    Shortly after, the U.S. Congress ordered AST to suspend the usual safety requirements for companies building spaceships until 2012 to help the industry get started.

    The move was part of an effort to nurture the nascent industry and limit regulatory interference, says Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

    The suspension was subsequently extended to October 2015, when it became clear that progress in private space travel was proving more difficult than originally assumed.

    But this means that if Virgin Galactic does indeed get their commercial operator’s licence this year, the flights could take place without the kind of safety rules that go into more conventional forms of air travel.

    Learning lessons on safety, seem very slow!



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  • I hope these are not more of the silly avoidable mistakes and ignorance of science, which led to these earlier disasters.

    A Mars probe lost because someone mixed up Imperial and metric measures in orbital calculations.

    Three Apollo astronauts incinerated because the test crew did not recognise the basic chemistry, that any electrical spark from a switch next inflammable insulation would erupt into flames in 16psi pure oxygen!

    Challenger lost, because having refused funding to test suspect seals at low temperatures, the engineers warnings were dismissed for “lack of hard evidence” to support their claims of a likely explosion under the launch conditions prevailing.

    The glib assurances about the effects of foam impacts on the Colombia shuttle, with tests which could have prevented its loss , not carried out until after the disaster.

    The Hubble Mirror out of focus because of cost-driven corner-cutting failing to do preflight testing.



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  • Well, speaking strictly, USSR had abandnoned the moon programm because of USA got there first. All that moon race was political to the core, and, when the tests of the new rocket went unsuccessful, it was decided not to put any more effort just to be the second in the race.

    What did surprise me though, is the fact that these old engines were bought by american company and put to actual use.



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  • L. Nov 1, 2014 at 11:10 am

    What did surprise me though, is the fact that these old engines were bought by american company and put to actual use.

    Both USSR and USA obsolete nuclear missiles, have been recycled as cheap satellite launchers for some time now.

    http://www.spacetoday.org/Rockets/Plowshares/Minuteman.html

    Recycled Minuteman Roars into Space
    Minotaur, a.k.a. OSPSLV, a rocket using recycled parts from retired nuclear missiles blasted off January 26, 2000, from the Commercial Launch Facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

    The six-story launch vehicle combined the first and second stages of decommissioned Minuteman 2 missiles with third and fourth stages from Orbital Sciences’ commercial air-launched Pegasus rocket. The launch proved that the combo is capable of ferrying satellites to space.

    Recycling Parts Saves Money

    Using recycled parts from Minuteman missiles saves a third of the usual cost for launching payloads, according to its builders.

    The Strategic Arms Reduction Talks (START) treaty between the United States and the former Soviet Union resulted in the decommissioning of hundreds of Minuteman 2 missiles. Some 350 Minuteman 2 missiles are in storage, which means plenty of parts are available.



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  • Second hand in space. I guess, it won’t be like that, if these managers who want to save money got to use these parts themselves. Anyway, thanks for clarifications, now I wonder no more. We will definitely see more of such disasters.



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  • Oh yeah! Like they did with the Challenger disaster, when they tried to stymie Feynman’s investigation?

    No, this will be nothing like that. Feynman’s dead this time. 🙁



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  • Alan4discussion Oct 31, 2014 at 3:31 pm

    Shortly after, the U.S. Congress ordered AST to suspend the usual safety requirements for companies building spaceships until 2012 to help the industry get started.

    The suspension was subsequently extended to October 2015, when it became clear that progress in private space travel was proving more difficult than originally assumed.

    But this means that if Virgin Galactic does indeed get their commercial operator’s licence this year, the flights could take place without the kind of safety rules that go into more conventional forms of air travel.

    Further news is coming out which I don’t really find very surprising!

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/americas/virgin-galactic-crash-spaceflight-company-was-warned-of-safety-issues-expert-claims-9834068.html

    Claims follow news that three senior Virgin Galactic executives – including its safety chief – have left in the last year

    Virgin Galactic was given warnings several years ago about the danger of its rockets but chose to ignore cautions from experts, it has been claimed.

    One pilot was killed and another seriously injured in a test flight in the Mojave Desert on Friday, after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up inflight.

    Carolynne Campbell-Knight, an expert on rocket propulsion at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS), said she raised concerns with Virgin Galactic over its use of nitrous oxide in its rockets around four years ago.

    Ms Campbell-Knight had contacted Sir Richard Branson’s company in 2009 or 2010 following growing concerns about the programme’s safety measures, after three engineers were killed in an explosion during the testing of a rocket engine on the ground in 2007.

    She said nitrous oxide can “go bang in a very unpredictable way,” adding: “My view is from my own engineering experience which I shared with them – they obviously took the position that they knew better.”

    It looks like politicians, financiers, and administrators, think they know better than the engineers! – Echoes of the Challenger disaster????

    Some are very slow to learn, that all opinions are not equal!!!!



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