Commercial Space News
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 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.
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 SpacePolicyOnline.com 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.
Orbital Sciences Corporation said today that an initial survey of the Antares launch pad and surrounding areas at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA shows that the damage is not as bad as initially feared. Also today, Orbital's President said it should be days, not weeks, before investigators can identify a "handful" of likely causes though finding the root cause will take longer.
Orbital's Antares rocket with a Cygnus spacecraft full of more than 5,000 pounds of experiments, equipment and supplies for the International Space Station (ISS) failed seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops last night. No one was injured.
David Thompson, Orbital's Chairman, President, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and one of the company's founders, held a telephone conference call with investors and financial analysts to discuss the failure this afternoon. The company's stock was down almost 17 percent. Orbital is in the midst of a merger with ATK. When asked if he was considering a delay in the shareholder vote with regard to the merger, Thompson said it is too early to tell.
"Too early to tell" was an oft-repeated theme throughout the teleconference as Thompson and Orbital Vice Chairman and Chief Financial Officer Garrett Pierce provided what information they could about the failure and attempts to ascertain its cause. Thompson said he thought it would take only days, not weeks, to narrow the list of potential causes to a few, although it would take longer to determine the root cause. Based on past experience, he anticipates that the next Antares launch, currently scheduled for April, will be delayed. "I think a reasonable best-case estimate would bound that at three months but it could certainly be considerably longer than that depending on what we find in the review. I would hope it would be not more than a year," he said.
Although Thompson cautioned that first impressions are not always the correct ones in accidents like this, there is a widespread assumption that the rocket's first stage engines were at least part of the cause considering how early in the launch the failure occurred. Antares is powered by two NK33 engines built by the Soviet Union in the 1970s and imported to the United States for refurbishment by Aerojet and redesignated AJ26. Orbital has been considering replacing the AJ26s with a different engine in about two years because they "have presented us with some serious technical and supply challenges in the past," he said, adding that the accident may accelerate those plans: "I certainly think we can shorten that interval, but at this point I don't know by how much." The company has not revealed what alternative engine it has selected.
Thompson said the launch complex "was spared from any major damage" and the Antares assembly building and Cygnus spacecraft processing facilities "were not affected ... in any way." The company issued a press statement later in the day reaffirming that based on an aerial survey and an on-site preliminary visit, serious damage was avoided, but the full extent of repairs or how long they will take will not be known until a more detailed inspection is conducted.
NASA posted an aerial view of the damaged area on its website. NASA Wallops Director Bill Wrobel expressed confidence that "we will rebound stronger than ever." NASA said there was damage at the MARS facility to the transporter erector launcher and lightning suppression rods. A sounding rocket launcher adjacent to the pad and buildings nearest the pad suffered the greatest damage, NASA said, and support buildings have broken windows and imploded doors. Environmental damage appears to be contained within the southern third of Wallops Island. No hazardous substances were detected in air samples at the Wallops mainland area, the Highway 175 causeway, or nearby Chincoteague Island. The Coast Guard and Virginia Marine Resources Commission have not observed any obvious signs of water pollution. Anyone who finds debris is warned not to touch it and to call 757-824-1295.
Aerial view of damaged Antares launch site at Wallops Flight Facility, VA, October 29, 2014. Photo Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach
Thompson and Pierce said insurance would cover the cost of launch site repairs to its facilities as well as the loss of near-term receivables that the company would have collected if the launch had been a success. The company still plans to submit a bid for NASA's follow-on Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) 2 contract. Yesterday's launch was part of the original CRS contract under which Orbital was awarded a $1.9 billion contract to deliver 20 tons of cargo to the ISS by 2016.
An Accident Investigation Board (AIB) led by Orbital and including NASA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will determine the cause of the accident and recommend corrective actions. Orbital's Dave Steffy, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of the Advanced Programs Group, is chairing the AIB.
The loss of the spacecraft is not expected to affect ISS operations. None of the cargo on this third operational Orbital mission to the ISS, Orb-3, was critical and a Russian Progress cargo spacecraft docked with the ISS this morning on a regularly scheduled flight bringing fuel, water, air, oxygen, food and other supplies.
Note: the membership of the AIB has been corrected. An earlier version of this article listed MARS as a member, but although its representatives are involved in assessing damage to the launch site, it is not listed as having a member of the board in Orbital's October 29 press release. Also, our original article did not mention that the FAA is providing oversight of the investigation process.
Cargo launches to the International Space Station (ISS) usually are so routine that they barely get mentioned in the news, but the docking of a Russian Progress spacecraft this morning (October 29) is noteworthy following the failure of a U.S. Antares rocket last night. If nothing else, the Progress docking demonstrates that there are several ways to get cargo to the ISS and while the Antares failure is disappointing, it is not a showstopper for ISS operations.
Russian Progress spacecraft have resupplied space stations since the 1970s. Developed initially to support the Soviet Union's Salyut and Mir space stations, today they routinely take cargo to the ISS. Progress M-25M launched at 4:09 am Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) this morning and docked with ISS at 9:08 am EDT. It is carrying 1,940 pounds of propellant, 48 pounds of oxygen, 57 pounds of air, 926 pounds of water, and 2,822 pounds of supplies.
Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft would have delivered another 5,050 pounds of supplies, experiments and equipment on its third operational ISS cargo run if the launch had been a success.
Orbital's commercial cargo competitor, SpaceX, just ended its fourth operational cargo mission to the ISS and another is scheduled for launch on December 9. SpaceX's Dragon not only takes cargo to the ISS, but also returns cargo to Earth. It is the only ISS cargo spacecraft designed to survive reentry through Earth's atmosphere and splash down in the ocean.
Japan also launches cargo spacecraft to the ISS designated HTV for H-II Transfer Vehicle (H-II is the name of the rocket that launches it). The Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) has launched four HTVs already and the next is scheduled for early 2015.
Europe developed the Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) to deliver cargo, but no more ATV launches are planned. The final ATV mission, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS.
In short, as NASA officials made clear last night, Antares was not carrying any cargo that was "absolutely critical" for ISS operations and the 6-person ISS crew is fine. The impact of the Antares failure is more likely to be financial in terms of who pays to build a replacement rocket and spacecraft, not to mention the cargo. Orbital's Frank Culbertson said last night that the company had "some" insurance for the launch, but was not specific about how much. He said the cost of the Antares and Cygnus was approximately $200 million. Costs will also be incurred for the investigation into the accident, making any needed changes to the rocket, and cleaning up the debris. Orbital provides cargo services to NASA under a fixed price contract ($1.9 billion to deliver 20 tons to the ISS through 2016), which may mean that the company will have to cover all those costs, but last night NASA's ISS program manager Mike Suffredini was vague about that issue. He said the contract was set up for such contingencies and NASA would work with Orbital to get the hardware replaced.
This article is updated throughout.
Orbital Sciences Corporation's Antares rocket crashed moments after liftoff at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time (EDT) today, October 28, 2014, from Wallops Island, VA. The rocket was carrying a Cygnus spacecraft loaded with supplies, experiments and equipment for the International Space Station (ISS) on Orbital's third operational cargo mission to the ISS, Orb-3.
No one was injured and it appears that damage was confined to the southern portion of NASA's Wallops Flight Facility near the launch pad. Orbital launches Antares from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops.
During a press conference following the explosion, Orbital Vice President (and former astronaut) Frank Culbertson and three NASA officials stressed that it is too early to know what went wrong or how much damage was sustained to the launch pad and surrounding facilities. Orbital will lead the investigation and analysis has begun already, but an inspection of the damaged areas and debris field must wait until daybreak. NASA Wallops Director Bill Wrobel stressed that people should not touch any debris that is found and instead should call 757-824-1295 to report it.
Videos of the accident are posted on YouTube from various vantage points, including this one that shows the failure as it happens.
Culbertson said that the failure began about 10-12 seconds after liftoff and range safety officials issued a destruct command about 20 seconds after liftoff. The exact timing and sequence of events is not yet known, however. Orbital will analyze telemetry and imagery as part of its investigation.
The message from Culbertson, NASA Human Exploration and Operations Associate Administrator Bill Gerstenmaier, and NASA ISS program manager Mike Suffredini is that the cause of the accident will be determined, the problem fixed, and Antares will fly again. Gerstenmaier also said that "no cargo that was absolutely critical was lost" and the ISS crew is not in any danger. Suffredini also stressed that the ISS crew has sufficient supplies to last through next March and, in any case, there are other cargo spacecraft capable of taking supplies to them including a Russian Progress spacecraft that will be launched tomorrow. So while everyone is disappointed about the failure and the loss of what was aboard, it will not have a significant impact on the crew's welfare or activities.
The first stage of the Antares, which was operating at the time of the accident, is powered by two AJ26 engines. The AJ26 is a refurbished Russian NK33 engine built over 40 years ago. The engines were imported to the United States and refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne. When asked why Orbital chose to use such an old design, Culbertson said that the engines were extensively tested and are "rugged and robust." These engines showed no signs of anomalies during that testing, he said, adding that is it not yet known if the engines were at fault.
Cygnus was carrying 5,050 pounds of experiments, spare parts, and other supplies to the 6-person ISS crew as well as a few commercial payloads. Suffredini said the crew was notified immediately about the accident, but they were watching it in any case. Culbertson said the cost of the rocket and spacecraft was about $200 million and that Orbital carried "some" insurance for the launch, but was not specific about the amount. Orbital conducts these launches under a Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA. When asked if the company would have to pay to refly the mission under that contract, Suffredini answered only vaguely that the contract was set up for such contingencies and NASA would work with Orbital to get the hardware replaced.
Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who chairs the Science and Space subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, issued a statement that while there will be "setbacks," "our commercial space ventures will ultimately be successful."
Reps. Lamar Smith (R-TX) and Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairmen of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee and its Space Subcommittee respectively, said they add their "disappointment to the thousands in the space community who worked tirelessly" in support of the launch, are relieved there were no reported fatalities, and "anticipate learning more ... in the near future."
Orbital is one of two U.S. companies that provide ISS cargo services for NASA. SpaceX is the other and one of its Dragon spacecraft just returned from the ISS on Saturday. The next SpaceX launch is scheduled for December 9. Suffredini said that NASA may make some small adjustments to the cargo manifest for the SpaceX launch to compensate for the loss of equipment on this flight. Orbital and SpaceX developed their "commercial cargo" space transportation systems as public-private partnerships with NASA where the government and the companies both put money into the project. Both companies' systems are now operational and the services are provided to NASA as a commercial service.
In addition to the two U.S. companies and Russia, Japan also sends cargo spacecraft to the ISS. Europe has in the past, but its final cargo spacecraft, ATV-5, is currently docked to the ISS. The United States, Russia, Japan, Europe and Canada are all partners in the ISS program.
The weather was perfect, the rocket was perfect, the spacecraft was perfect, but the launch of Orbital Sciences Corporation's Orb-3 cargo mission to the International Space Station was scrubbed this evening because a boat was in restricted waters off the launch site at Wallops Island, VA.
Waters off any of the U.S. launch sites are restricted during launches to protect people and property from debris in case of an accident. Apparently the operators of this one did not heed notices that the area was restricted.
There was only a 10-minute launch window and the boat was not clear of the range in time.
The next launch opportunity is tomorrow, October 28, at 6:22 pm Eastern Daylight Time.
Note: the new launch time has been updated.
Here is our list of space policy related events coming up in the next TWO weeks, October 27-November 7, 2014, and any insight we can offer about them. Congress returns on November 12.
During the Weeks
This issue covers the next TWO weeks, and certainly the most interesting event in that time period is November 4 -- election day in the United States. More on that in our next issue, but put it on your calendar and GET OUT AND VOTE!
In the nearer term, Orbital Sciences Corporation will launch its next cargo mission, Orb-3, to the International Space Station tomorrow (October 27) from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility, VA. The launch at 6:45 pm ET may be visible along the east coast (weather permitting). Orbital has a map showing where to look on its website. NASA TV will provide coverage beginning at 5:45 pm ET. A post-launch press conference is scheduled for approximately 90 minutes after launch.
The American Astronautical Society (AAS) will hold its annual Wernher von Braun symposium in Huntsville, AL from October 27-30 (the 27th is a welcome reception and the 30th is a tour of the United Launch Alliance production facility in nearby Decatur, AL). Three "Washington Perspectives" are on the schedule: on October 28 by Cristina Chaplain of the Government Accountability Office; and on October 29 by Dick Obermann, minority staff director of the House Science, Space and Technology Committee, at 8:00 am Central Time, and by Kate Kronmiller of Orbital Sciences Corporation at noon CT. Lots of other very interesting discussions on tap as well. There is no indication on the agenda if any of the event will be webcast.
On November 6, Mark Sirangelo of Sierra Nevada's Space Systems Division will talk to the Washington Space Business Roundtable. Between Sierra Nevada's lawsuit over NASA's award of the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCAP) contracts to Boeing and SpaceX (and not Sierra Nevada), and the company's non-NASA plans for its Dream Chaser spacecraft, it should be particularly interesting.
Those and other events we know about as of Sunday evening are listed below.
Monday, October 27
Monday-Thursday, October 27-30
Tuesday-Thursday, October 28-29
Wednesday, October 29
Monday, November 3
Monday-Tuesday, November 3-4
Tuesday, November 4
Wednesday-Thursday, November 5-6
Thursday, November 6
In a wide-ranging “one-on-one” interview today at MIT, Elon Musk easily transitioned from technical to philosophical discussions about rockets, Mars exploration, Tesla cars, and hyperloops. From asking rhetorically whether buying lipstick is more important than colonizing Mars, to insisting that bringing Mars resources back to Earth is unrealistic even if it was cocaine, it was an entertaining exchange.
Musk’s interview by MIT aeronautics and astronautics department head Jaime Perarie was part of the department’s three-day centennial celebration that featured lectures and panel discussions by illustrious aerospace professionals, including many astronauts and MIT professor Dava Newman, recently nominated to be NASA Deputy Administrator.
Musk’s hour-and-a-half long session was split roughly 50-50 between questions from Perarie and from audience members, many of them students. He made many quotable comments, including the fact that SpaceX will try to land a Falcon 9 first stage on a floating platform as soon as the next flight, but at least sometime in the next 12 months, with the goal of reflying that stage as a demonstration of reusability.
Among the highlights of the space-related portions of the session are the following:
Why Colonize Mars?
International Cooperation or Competition?
Space Resources Will be Used in Space Not on Earth
One Way Trips to Mars
Other topics included space elevators (he’s skeptical, but happy to be proved wrong), artificial intelligence (which he referred to as “summoning a demon”), hyperloop systems (he offered technical advice to a student who tried to build one as a senior project), and his Tesla cars. The entire session is available on MIT’s website.
Google executive Alan Eustace set a new skydiving altitude record today, beating a record set just two years ago by Felix Baumgartner. Without the capsule or the publicity associated with Baumgartner's dive, Eustace ascended to 135,890 feet according to the New York Times.
Baumgartner set his altitude record of 127,852 feet in October 2012 amid great fanfare sponsored by Red Bull. He rode inside a capsule up to the release altitude, transmitting live audio and video until he stepped out of the capsule for his parachute descent to Earth.
Like Baumgarnter, Eustace wore a specially designed "spacesuit" for his trip into the stratosphere. Eustace's suit, developed by a team led by Paragon Space Development Corporation, is dubbed "StratEx" for Stratosphere Explorer. Protected only by the suit, Eustace "dangled" under the balloon for the two-hour ascent, then released himself and returned to land in just 15 minutes, breaking the sound barrier as he travelled up to 822 miles per hour according to the New York Times account. He landed 70 miles from his origination point near Roswell, NM.
The 57-year old Eustace chose to conduct his jump in secrecy and even declined support from his employer so it would not become a marketing effort according to the NYTimes story. He is Google's Senior Vice President, Knowledge.
Alan Eustace. Photo Credit: Google Website