The explosion of an Orbital Sciences rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station signaled more than the loss of a $200 million mission on Tuesday. The incident marked the first disaster of a commercial resupply mission to the space station since NASA put the responsibility in the hands of private U.S. contractors. It’s a turn of events that will likely leave the supply runs in the hands of Orbital’s competitor SpaceX and Russia in the near future.
The Antares rocket owned by Orbital Sciences was originally scheduled to carry about 2,200 kilograms of supplies to the six astronauts currently stationed aboard the space station, according to BBC News. But the rocket faltered just 15 seconds after liftoff, fell back to Earth, and exploded in an inferno on Oct. 28. Click Orlando reported that the force of the explosion broke windows and damaged ceiling tiles of shops and restaurants several miles from the launch site at the NASA Wallops Island Flight Facility in Virginia.
“Evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad,” according to an Orbital Sciences statement on 30 October.
The Antares rocket carried supplies that included 600 kilograms of food such as “pre-packaged meals and freeze-dried crab cakes,” BBC News points out. Other cargo consisted of experimental equipment for testing blood flow to the human brain, understanding how space travel affects the human body’s immune system, analyzing meteors and studying the growth of pea shoots in orbital conditions.
Luckily, the space station has enough supplies to last for a period of four to six months, a NASA official said in a CBS News interview. That means the astronauts should be able to hold out well into the next year even if no other resupply spacecraft arrived. Russia’s Roskosmos space agency said it was ready to launch extra supply missions upon NASA’s request, according to Reuters.
Orbital Sciences holds a $1.9 billion contract with NASA for resupplying the space station for at least eight launches through 2016. U.S. spaceflight firm SpaceX—founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur Elon Musk—holds a separate resupply contract with NASA worth $1.6 billion. But the space station can also receive supplies from a host of space agency spacecraft such as Russia’s Progress cargo ship and Japan’s H-2 Transfer Vehicle, according to SPACE.com. (The European Space Agency wrapped up its fifth and final resupply mission for the space station with its Automated Transfer Vehicles in August of this year.)
Photo: Joel Kowsky/NASA
An ongoing investigation of the disaster by Orbital Sciences has focused on the evident failure in the Antares rocket’s first stage engines—AJ26 engines first developed by the Soviet Union for its failed N-1 moon rocket program in the 1960s and 1970s. Aerojet-Rocketdyne bought and refurbished many of the Russian rocket engines before contracting to sell 20 of the engines to Orbital Sciences, according to the Los Angeles Times. The newspaper reports that Orbital Sciences had already been planning to retire the problematic rocket engines prior to the recent launch failure.
The latest disaster comes at an awkward time for Orbital Sciences in addition to driving the company’s stock price downward. Orbital is in the midst of merging with Alliant Techsystems Inc. (ATK)—an aerospace company that built the solid rocket motors for NASA’s space shuttle—to form a new company focused on space rockets and military hardware. But the Wall Street Journal reports that both Orbital and outside analysts don’t expect the rocket accident to dramatically affect the merger.
Still, Orbital Sciences won’t be launching more resupply missions for the space station anytime soon. That may give the edge to Musk’s SpaceX in terms of future contract awards from NASA if there is a “protracted accident investigation,” said Chris Quilty, an analyst at Raymond James, in a research note cited by Businessweek. SpaceX also recently won an additional $2.6 billion contract to build and test its Dragon 2 spacecraft for carrying U.S. astronauts to the space station.
NASA will also have to manage space station operations with just one commercial resupply partner in the short term, if not longer. The U.S. space agency is focused on developing its heavy rocket system for taking astronauts beyond Earth orbit while leaving the standard space station resupply missions to private contractors.
Jeremy Hsu has been working as a science and technology journalist in New York City since 2008. He has written on subjects as diverse as supercomputing and wearable electronics for IEEE Spectrum. When he’s not trying to wrap his head around the latest quantum computing news for Spectrum, he also contributes to a variety of publications such as Scientific American, Discover, Popular Science, and others. He is a graduate of New York University’s Science, Health & Environmental Reporting Program.