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Orbital Names AIB Members, Focuses on Event Timeline

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 03-Nov-2014 (Updated: 03-Nov-2014 10:32 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation today named the individuals serving on the Accident Investigation Board (AIB) it is leading to determine the cause of the launch failure of its Antares rocket last week.  The Board's first focus is creating a timeline of events that led to the loss of the Cygnus spacecraft and the 5,050 pounds of cargo it was transporting to the International Space Station (ISS).

Antares lifted off from its launch pad at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA last Tuesday (October 28) at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT).  Everything seemed fine for the first 15 seconds, but then the first stage failed.   The rocket was destroyed by the Range Safety Officer moments later.  Suspicion centers on the two AJ26 first stage engines, which are refurbished Russian NK33 engines built more than 40 years ago, but as Orbital President and CEO David Thompson cautioned last week, first impressions are not always correct.

The launch was Orbital's third operational ISS cargo resupply mission for NASA under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract.  The members of the AIB are all from Orbital and NASA, except for Wayne Hale, an independent consultant, although he is retired from NASA.

  • David Steffy, Chief Engineer, Orbital's Advanced Programs Group (chairman)
  • David Swanson, Senior Director of Safety and Mission Assurance, Orbital's Technical Operations organization
  • Wayne Hale, Independent Consultant and former NASA Space Shuttle Program Manager
  • David Cooper, Independent Readiness Review Team, Orbital's Launch Systems Group
  • Eric Wood, Director of Propulsion Engineering, Orbital's Launch Systems Group
  • Tom Costello, Launch Vehicle Assessment Manager, ISS Program, NASA Johnson Space Center
  • Matt Lacey, Senior Vehicle Systems Engineer, NASA Launch Services Program

The AIB is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), specifically by:

  • Michael Kelly, Chief Engineer, FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST)
  • Marcus Ward, Mishap Response Coordinator, FAA/AST

This launch did not carry any crew, one of the many differences between it and the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo (SS2) on October 31.  That crash investigation is headed by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).  One of the two SS2 pilots died in that incident.

Orbital and NASA officials have said that the Antares launch site was not badly damaged in the October 28 launch failure.  Orbital's Wallops-based personnel spent the weekend cataloging debris and moving it to a NASA facility on Wallops Island for secure and weather resistant storage.  The AIB is busy developing a fault-tree and timeline of key events during the launch and reconciling data from multiple sources. 

Thompson said last week that he expects a likely cause to be determined within "days not weeks," though it will take longer to identify the root cause.  He could not estimate when Antares launches would resume other than to say that the next launch, originally scheduled for April 2015, would be delayed between three months in a best case scenario or, he hopes, not more than a year.

This third cargo launch to ISS, Orb-3, was part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to send 20 tons of supplies to the ISS through 2016.  It was the fifth launch of Antares; the first four were successful.  This launch was delayed by one day because a sailboat 40 miles off the Virginia coast was in a restricted zone that had to be clear of vessels due to range safety considerations.

Orbital said on Friday that it has begun developing a "comprehensive plan to maintain the cargo supply line between Earth" and the ISS.  

SpaceX is the other U.S. company that delivers cargo to ISS for NASA.   One of its Dragon spacecraft just returned from the ISS and the next is scheduled for launch on December 9.  Russian and Japanese cargo spacecraft also resupply ISS crews.  A Russian Progress cargo spacecraft arrived at the ISS last Wednesday on a regularly scheduled flight.

NASA has not been able to take cargo or people to the ISS itself since the space shuttle program was terminated in 2011.

NTSB: Uncommanded Feathering Occurred on SS2

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2014 (Updated: 03-Nov-2014 12:36 AM)

Christopher Hart, acting chairman of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), said this evening (November 2) that investigators determined today as a matter of fact -- not necessarily cause -- that "uncommanded feathering" took place on SpaceShipTwo (SS2) after it dropped away from its carrier aircraft and fired its rocket engine.  The engine, fuel tanks and oxidizer tank were all recovered today and all are intact with no signs of burn-through or of being breached.

SS2 crashed on October 31, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury, seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold, and destroying the spaceplane.  SS2 was built by Scaled Composites and owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, a business created to take anyone who can afford a $250,000 ticket on a brief, suborbital flight to space.

Until now, speculation has focused on a new fuel used on this test flight, but the facts released by Hart tonight cast a very different light on what may have happened.  He stressed repeatedly however that these are facts, not a judgment about the cause of the accident.

Feathering is a technique used after the vehicle reaches apogee (its highest altitude) to increase drag as it returns to Earth.  The pilots need to take two steps in order to deploy the feathers (tail booms):  the lock/unlock handle must be moved from lock to unlock, and the feathering handle then must be moved to the feather position.  The lock/unlock handle is not supposed to be moved to the unlock position until the vehicle reaches Mach 1.4.

In this case, however, telemetry and video from a camera inside the cockpit show that the co-pilot moved the lock/unlock handle to the unlock position when the vehicle was approximately at Mach 1.0 instead of Mach 1.4.  The second step, moving the feathering handle to the feather position, never took place.  Hart therefore described this as "uncommanded feathering."

Until then, the mission was proceeding normally.  SS2 dropped away from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and fired its rocket engine. The engine fired for 9 seconds at which point telemetry and video showed that the lever was moved from lock to unlock and two seconds later the feathers deployed even though the feather handle was not moved to the feather position.  Shortly thereafter, telemetry was lost and the vehicle disintegrated.

The bottom line of these facts, then, is that the lock/unlock handle was moved prematurely, the second step ordinarily needed to deploy the feathers -- moving the feathering handle -- did not occur, the feathers deployed nonetheless, and the vehicle broke apart shortly thereafter.

Stressing again that these are facts, not a determination of cause, he said months of investigation lie ahead and the NTSB will be looking at training issues, whether there was pressure to continue testing, the safety culture, design, procedures, and many other issues.

Hart said the NTSB would hold another press briefing tomorrow, time TBD.

What's Happening in Space Policy November 2-8, 2014

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 02-Nov-2014 (Updated: 02-Nov-2014 05:45 PM)

Here is our list of space policy-related events for the week of November 2 - 8, 2014 and any insight we can offer about them.   Congress returns on November 12.

During the Week

News can be expected throughout the week on the October 28 Antares launch failure and the October 31 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) accident.  Orbital Sciences Corporation is leading the Antares investigation and has been posting regular updates on its website.   The National Transportation Safety Board (NSTB) is leading the SS2 investigation, where one of the two pilots died and the other is hospitalized.   NTSB held two briefings yesterday (at 9:00 am and 8:00 pm Pacific Time), and a third is scheduled for tonight (Sunday) at 8:00 pm PT (11:00 pm ET).  We will post information on any briefings that we learn about during the week on the calendar.

On the national scene, the biggest news in the coming week will be, of course, Tuesday's mid-term elections.  Republicans are expected to retain control of the House and could win control of the Senate as well, although some races are very close, legal challenges may by filed against some state voter registration laws or processes, and there is a chance there could be as many as four Independents in the Senate (there are two now), which could sway the balance of power depending on which party they choose to caucus with (the two incumbent Independents caucus with the Democrats).  All of that makes prognostication especially difficult and could mean that the issue of which party controls the Senate may not be settled on Tuesday.


Lots of other interesting events are on tap, too.  Certainly the most intriguing one is a panel discussion sponsored by the American Chemical Society and American University on Thursday on "The First and Final Frontiers: The Overlapping Technology Policies of Farming and Space Exploration."   The Washington Space Business Roundtable's luncheon later that day also should be particularly interesting.  Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC) is the speaker.  Between SNC's lawsuit against the government over the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contract awards and this past week's commercial space setbacks (though they did not involve SNC), Sirangelo's take on the present and future of commercial space should be thought provoking.   It's a busy day.  The ACS/AU event is from 10:00-11:00 am ET, NASA is having a briefing at KSC (watch on NASA TV) at 11:00 on the planned December launch of the Orion capsule on its Exploration Flight Test-1 (EFT-1), and the WSBR luncheon starts at 11:30.

On Saturday, NASA, in partnership with the University of Arizona, will hold the first of two "citizen forums" on the Asteroid Initiative.  This first one is in Phoenix.  The second, on November 15, is in Boston.  People had to apply to participate in person and that process is closed; those chosen are being paid $100.  Anyone else can participate online (no stipend), but must register. 

Sunday, November 2

Monday, November 3

Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4

Tuesday, November 4


Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6

Thursday, November 6

Saturday, November 8


NTSB Says SS2 Debris Field Indicates In-Flight Breakup, Scaled Identifies Pilots

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2014 (Updated: 02-Nov-2014 12:10 AM)

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) said tonight that the wreckage from the SpaceShipTwo (SS2) crash yesterday is spread over 5 miles and that indicates an in-flight breakup.  Earlier today, Scaled Composites identified the two SS2 pilots:  Michael Alsbury, who perished, and Peter Siebold, who is hospitalized.

NTSB acting chairman Christopher Hart provided a brief recap of the first day of the NTSB investigation at an 8:00 pm Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) press conference (11:00 pm EDT).   This was the second NTSB briefing of the day, the first one having been held at 9:00 am PDT.  Another NTSB briefing will be held tomorrow.

Virgin Galactic Founder Richard Branson also held a news conference earlier today.

SS2 crashed shortly after 10:00 am PDT yesterday (October 31).  The reusable spaceplane separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft as expected after reaching approximately 45,000 feet, but something happened shortly thereafter that caused it to crash to Earth.

Hart said that one decision made today was who would be parties to the investigation.  NTSB has the lead, and the FAA. Scaled Composites, and Virgin Galactic are participants.  SS2 was owned by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled.   The two pilots were Scaled employees.

Scaled said in a press release that Siebold was the SS2 pilot and Alsbury the copilot.  Alsbury died at the scene.  Siebold, who is director of Flight Operations for Scaled,  is "alert and talking with his family and doctors," the company reported.

Hart was asked at the press conference why one of the pilots was able to eject and the other did not.   Hart replied that it is not clear how the surviving pilot got out the plane.   One parachute was found at the crash site, and the other was not deployed, he said, but there is not enough information yet to determine exactly what happened.   The NTSB has not interviewed Siebold, the survivor, on the recommendation of his doctors.

When asked if the NTSB has any findings that could affect the short-term future of the program, Hart stressed that the NTSB is investigating this accident and it does not prevent the operator from doing anything.  It is "completely up to the operator" as to what to do in the short term.  The accident investigation will determine the cause of the accident and make recommendations to avoid another occurrence, he said.

A lot of data and information will be available to investigators, he added.  SS2 had six cameras, WhiteKnightTwo had three, a range camera at nearby Edwards Air Force Base was used, a chase airplane had video and radar, and telemetry with over 1,000 parameters is available.  It will take some time to comb through all of that data, he said, stressing that he was not complaining, that having so much data is a good thing.

The debris is spread over a 5 mile area from northeast to southwest, which indicates an in-flight breakup, he said.  The left and right tail booms fell in the northeast corner, then the fuselage with oxidizer and fuel tanks, then the cockpit, and then the engine itself.  Investigators looked at the fuel tanks today, but not the engine.

He said investigators likely would be on-scene for 4-7 days.  That will be followed by a period for collecting facts off-scene and then analysis, with the entire investigation taking about 12 months.

NTSB Investigation of SS2 Accident Begins, Branson on Site at Mojave

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 01-Nov-2014 (Updated: 01-Nov-2014 06:08 PM)

Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, arrived in Mojave, CA today following the crash of his SpaceShipTwo (SS2) spaceplane yesterday.  The crash killed one pilot and seriously injured a second.  National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigators also arrived today to begin their investigation into what happened.

Branson praised the bravery of test pilots and the resilience of the team at Mojave working on SS2, and profoundly thanked all who had sent notes of condolence and support since the accident occurred at about 10:00 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) yesterday, shortly after SS2 separated from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft during a test flight.

"We have always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project," he said at the Mojave Air and Space Port this morning PDT.  He stressed that the Virgin Galactic development effort has had safety as its number one priority, and the project's "comprehensive testing program" is designed to "ensure this never happens to the public."

Branson did not release the name of either pilot involved in the accident.   One died at the scene, the other was transported to a hospital.   The Los Angeles Times reported today that the Kern County Coroner's office identified the pilot who died as 39-year-old Michael Alsbury.  He and the injured pilot, whose name has not been released, both worked for Scaled Composites, the company that built SS2 and its predecessor SpaceShipOne. 

"The bravery of test pilots generally cannot be overstated. ... We do understand the risks involved and we are not going to push on blindly -- to do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy," Branson said.

Virgin Galactic's goal is to send anyone who can afford a ticket (currently priced at $250,000) on a suborbital trip to space in a small, reusable spaceplane.  The spaceplane is attached to a large aircraft for ascent to about 45,000 feet.  It then detaches and falls away from the carrier aircraft, lights its rocket engine and travels in an arc to an altitude above 100 kilometers, an internationally recognized (though not legally defined) boundary between air and space.  After a few minutes, the spaceplane glides back to land on Earth.  SpaceShipOne achieved this feat twice within seven days in 2004, winning the $10 million Ansari X-Prize.  Very soon thereafter, Branson, head of the Virgin Group that includes Virgin Airlines, partnered with Scaled to turn the idea into a commercial venture.  The company is now entirely owned by Virgin Galactic, but Scaled continues to be the builder.   SS2 was the first of a planned five spaceplanes.  A second reportedly is already under construction.

Branson sounded determined to discover the problem, fix it, and fly again during his prepared remarks, but when asked if it was "fair to say the dream lives on," he gave a more nuanced answer:  "we owe it to our test pilots to find out exactly what went wrong, and ... if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on."

Branson spoke shortly after the acting chairman of the NTSB, Christopher Hart, held a press conference essentially to announce that NTSB investigators had arrived on site and the investigation has begun.  The investigator-in-charge is Lorenda Ward and the investigation team includes experts in structures, systems, engines, vehicle performance, and operations. 

Hart noted that this is the first time the NTSB is leading the investigation of a spaceflight accident.   Although it participated in the space shuttle Challenger and Columbia accident investigations, he said, "this will be the first time we have been in the lead of a space launch that involved persons on board."  The NTSB is participating in the investigation of the Antares rocket failure on October 28, but Orbital Sciences Corporation is in charge of that one and it did not have any crew on board.

Another NTSB press conference on the SS2 accident is scheduled for 8:00 pm PDT tonight(Saturday, November 1). 

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Crashes in Mojave Desert; One Killed, One Injured

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2014 (Updated: 31-Oct-2014 11:30 PM)

SpaceShipTwo, an air-launched spaceplane designed to take passengers into space on suborbital journeys, crashed in the Mojave Desert during a test flight today (October 31, 2014).  Two pilots were aboard.  One died.  The second was taken to a hospital and his condition is unknown.  Their names have not been released.

SpaceShipTwo (SS2) is owned by Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and built by Scaled Composites.  Scaled developed the original SpaceShipOne that won the Ansari X-Prize in 2004 for making two flights within seven days of a reusable spaceplane above 100 kilometers, an altitude that is internationally recognized as the boundary between air and space (there is no legal definition of that boundary).

Both pilots aboard SS2 today worked for Scaled according to that company’s president, Kevin Mickey.  He spoke at a press conference this afternoon, but declined to identify the pilots by name or provide any information about their ages, training or years of experience.  He said only that Scaled employs a team of test pilots who have significant training.  The surviving pilot parachuted down according to Virgin Galactic.

Virgin Galactic’s goal is to enable anyone able to afford a ticket to travel into space, even if only for a few minutes.  The price is about $250,000 and more than 700 people reportedly have signed up.  Getting to the point of flying passengers has taken much longer than expected, however.  Initially commercial flights were planned by 2007, but that date slipped repeatedly.  Most recently, Branson said the first passenger flight would be in early 2015.

Today’s accident surely will delay any such flights.   The only question is by how many months or years.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is sending a “go” team to investigate the accident.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) also is investigating.

SS2 is coupled to an aircraft ("mothership"), WhiteKnightTwo, for ascent to about 45,000 feet altitude.  It then drops away and ignites its rocket engine for the flight to space.  It does not go into orbit.  Instead, it reaches the apex of its arc and then flies back to land on Earth.

The FAA said the failure today began shortly after SS2 separated from WhiteKnightTwo, but exactly what happened must await the investigation.

Eyewitness reports often conflict, and that is true in this case.  What is known for certain is that WhiteKnightTwo and SS2 took off from Mojave Air and Space Port at 9:20 am Pacific Daylight Time (PDT) and everything was normal until SS2 dropped away at 10:10 am PDT.

Doug Messier, author of the Parabolic Arc website, was at Mojave and witnessed what happened.   According to his account, tweeted (@spacecom) in real time, SS2 “blew up.  Came down in pieces.”

Conversely, Stuart Witt, Chief Executive of the Mojave Air and Space Port, said at this afternoon’s press conference that he was watching the flight from the ground and there was no explosion.  What alerted him was not what he saw or heard, but what he did NOT see or hear.  There was a “pause” of about 90 seconds after separation, he said, and that is when he began to suspect a problem.

After the press conference, Messier tweeted that he had spoken with a photographer who was photographing the flight and "Pictures show Engine fired fine, then there's a white plume.  He [the photographer] thinks the nitrous oxide tank blew."

This was the 55th flight of SS2, but only four of those, including today’s, were in powered flight and this was the first powered flight since January.  It also was the first using a new plastic-based fuel, replacing a rubber-based fuel.  Speculation is centering on the new fuel as a potential cause of the accident.   Mickey tried to deflect such suspicion at today’s press conference, stressing that the fuel had been “thoroughly tested” on the ground and no anomalies were expected during the test flight.

Virgin Galactic President George Whitesides said at the press conference that “space is hard and today was a tough day,” but “we’re going to get through it.”   Whitesides added that Richard Branson was on his way to Mojave and was expected in the morning.  Branson tweeted that he is “flying to Mojave immediately to be with the team” and added later on the company’s website that “Space is hard – but worth it.  We will persevere and move forward together.”

Witt said another press conference would take place tomorrow (Saturday) in late morning or early afternoon PDT.

SS2 is an entirely commercial endeavor that does not involve NASA.  However, NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden issued a statement that “space flight is incredibly difficult and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”

Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively, offered their condolences to “the entire Virgin Galactic family.”  Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), chairman of the Science and Space Subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, similarly offered his condolences and said he is “confident” that “we will learn” from the investigation of this accident and an unrelated failure of a commercial Antares rocket on Tuesday and take steps to prevent their recurrence.  Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), who represents the district that includes Mojave and is the House Majority Leader, said that the “devastating crash is a reminder how fragile life is in these efforts” but he is confident Virgin Galactic and authorities are “working diligently” to learn about what caused the crash.

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Destroyed, Status of Pilots Unknown

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 31-Oct-2014 (Updated: 31-Oct-2014 02:55 PM)

Virgin Galactic confirmed moments ago that a SpaceShipTwo vehicle was destroyed this afternoon during an in-flight test.  The status of the pilots is not known.

The company issued a statement as follows:

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. We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as we are able to do so."

Check back here for more information as it becomes available.

China's Lunar Sample Return Test Spacecraft Due to Return Friday EDT - UPDATE

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2014 (Updated: 31-Oct-2014 07:07 PM)

UPDATE:  China's Xinhua news service reported on October 31, 2014 EDT that the return capsule successfully landed.

China's lunar sample return test spacecraft, launched a week ago, is due to return to Earth tomorrow, October 31 Eastern Daylight Time (November 1 local time in China).  The spacecraft is testing technologies for reentering Earth's atmosphere at high velocity in preparation for a mission to bring back a sample of the Moon in 2017.

China launched this test flight on October 23 EDT (October 24 Beijing time) on an 8-day mission around the Moon.  China has not offered a specific name for the spacecraft in English-language reports.  In Chinese, however, it is referred to as "Chang'e wu hao feixing shiyan qi" or "CE-5 Flight Test Device" according to Jonathan McDowell, author of Jonathan's Space Report.  Some analysts of the Chinese space program refer to it as Chang'e-5T1, but the origin of that designation is unclear.

The spacecraft has returned several images during its journey.  One of those posted on China's website shows the Moon and the Earth.

Photo of Earth and Moon taken by China's lunar sample return test spacecraft, October 2014.
Photo credit:  Xinhua and

The actual sample return mission, Chang'e-5, is scheduled for launch in 2017.  In preparation for that launch, China decided to test the reentry technologies needed for returning a sample container from lunar distance.  Landing is expected in China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region.

Chinese press reports today say that the spacecraft will return on November 1 local time in China, but do not specify exactly when.  Bob Christy at calculates that the landing will be at 22:40 GMT (6:40 pm EDT) October 31 plus or minus 10 minutes based on NOTAMs (Notices to Airmen).  He reports that the reentry vehicle will use a "skip" reentry profile where it will first dip into the atmosphere to reduce speed and then reenter a second time to make a ballistic landing using a parachute.  He adds that the main spacecraft may remain in orbit in the Earth-Moon system.

China has launched two orbiters (Chang'e-1 and Chang'e-2) and one lander/rover (Chang'e-3/Yutu) to the Moon already.   Chang'e is China's mythological goddess of the Moon.  Yutu is her pet Jade Rabbit.  After orbiting the Moon, Chang'e-2 was sent on an additional excursion to flyby the asteroid Toutatis, which it did in 2012.  In reporting today on the expected return of this test mission, Xinhua also provided an update on Chang'e-2 saying that as of July it was 100 million kilometers from Earth and would travel as far as 300 million kilometers from Earth before returning to a distance 7 million kilometers from Earth in 2029.

Data Show Antares Rocket Fine for First 15 Seconds, Then First Stage Failure

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2014 (Updated: 30-Oct-2014 09:03 PM)

Orbital Sciences Corporation said today that telemetry from the Antares rocket that failed on Tuesday night indicates that there were no issues before launch or for the first 15 seconds afterwards.  What happened thereafter is still being investigated.

"Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground," the company said in a statement today. 

Orbital was attempting to launch Antares with a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of cargo destined for the International Space Station (ISS).  This was the company's third operational cargo resupply mission to the ISS, designated Orb-3.  Four previous Antares launches took place without incident.  The launches are part of NASA's commercial cargo program to supply the ISS using commercial rather than government-built space transportation systems.   As part of its $1.9 billion Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA, Orbital is required to launch 20 tons of supplies to the ISS through 2016.

The Antares first stage is powered by two AJ26 engines provided by Aerojet Rocketdyne.  They are refurbished Russian NK33 engines built more than 40 years ago and much speculation is focused on them as the cause of the failure, but Orbital officials stress that they passed intensive tests before being cleared for launch.   Orbital's President and CEO Dave Thompson noted yesterday that first impressions are not always correct and full analysis of telemetry, imagery and debris is needed before making final determinations about cause.

The rocket fell close to, but not on, the launch pad, Orbital said, adding that "[p]rior to impacting the ground, the rocket's Flight Termination System was engaged by the designated official in the Wallops Range Control Center."  That is a reference to the range safety control system and the Range Safety Officer.  Rockets can be detonated by remote control if they veer off course in order to avoid impacting or raining debris over populated areas.

Orbital added that additional inspections of the launch site continue to show that it avoided major damage.  Some of the cargo that was aboard the Cygnus spacecraft has been found and will be retrieved when clearance is given to see if anything survived.

NASA provided a more detailed manifest of what was aboard Cygnus.

Orbital's stock rose 3 percent today, after a nearly 17 percent drop yesterday.

Orbital is leading the Accident Investigation Board to determine what happened, which includes members from NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) providing oversight of the process.  The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates the commercial launch vehicle industry.  

Antares is launched from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) on NASA's Wallops Flight Facility at Wallops Island, Virginia.

GAO Worries DOD Disaggregation Decisions May Be Poorly Informed

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 30-Oct-2014 (Updated: 30-Oct-2014 03:10 PM)

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) talked to many experts and reviewed a host of reports on DOD's plans for disaggregation of some of its satellite systems.  In the end, GAO concluded that little is known about the pros and cons of using that acquisition approach for future space systems and warned that "poorly informed decisions could made" by DOD.

GAO was directed to conduct its review by the Senate Armed Services Committee (SASC) in the report accompanying the FY2014 National Defense Authorization Act.  The committee particularly asked GAO to assess "the potential benefits and drawbacks of disaggregating key military space systems and examine if disaggregation offers decreased acquisition and lifecycle costs and increased survivability of a satellite constellation compared to more traditional acquisition approaches."

Disaggregation has become a popular, if not well understood, term for launching many smaller satellites instead of a few large ones to accomplish a given mission such as early warning, weather, or communication.  GAO describes it as "breaking up" large satellites into multiple smaller ones.  The idea is that smaller satellites may be less costly to develop, produce and launch than large, complex satellites, and that space systems as a whole might be less vulnerable (and therefore more resilient) if there were more targets that had to be neutralized to degrade system performance significantly.  Hosted payloads are an example of disaggregation where a user such as DOD puts a sensor or other payload on another entity's satellite so that it does not have to pay for the entire satellite.  CHIRP (Commercially Hosted Infrared Payload) is one example of DOD utilizing the hosted payload concept where it tested a new infrared sensor as a payload on a commercial communications satellite owned by SES.  Although widely considered a success, DOD discontinued CHIRP in 2013 because of budget constraints.

SASC specifically asked GAO to look at capabilities provided by three satellite systems:  Advanced Extremely High Frequency (AEHF) communications satellites; Space Based Infrared System (SBIRS) for missile warning, missile defense, technical intelligence and battlespace awareness; and Weather System Follow-on (WSF), a successor to the Defense Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP).

GAO said, however, that there are so many unknowns, it could not make a definitive assessment at this time.  Therefore it limited the report to describing the potential benefits and limitations and to assessing whether DOD has enough knowledge to make informed decisions today about whether to use disaggregation for acquiring new space systems.

GAO's answer to the latter question is no.  Although DOD and other organizations have conducted many studies, and DOD has Analysis of Alternatives (AOAs) underway, they are insufficient to support good decision-making, the report concluded.  GAO found that  "... the intent of the AOAs is not to examine the merits of disaggregation on its own, but rather as one of the many options that may or may not provide solutions.  The additional studies beyond the AOAs have been useful in providing results to inform the ongoing AOAs, officials told us, though some have been regarded as inconclusive because they were not conducted with sufficient analytical rigor or did not consider the capabilities, risks, and trades in a holistic manner."  In addition, DOD "lacks common measures for resilience that can be used consistently in AOAs..." even though "DOD leaders have emphasized resilience as a priority when considering future systems," and demonstration projects like CHIRP provide technological insight and lessons learned, but do not focus on operational feasibility.

As for the potential benefits and drawbacks, GAO provided many examples of both, but its ultimate conclusion was that not enough is known today:  "Without a determined and disciplined effort to develop information about the full range of disaggregation issues -- including operations -- decisions on future space capabilities could be under-informed and opportunities missed."

Events of Interest  

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