The risky busi­ness of com­mer­cial space flight

Fail­ure of un­manned SpaceX cargo rocket is the in­dus­try’s third in eight months.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Melody Petersen

An un­manned SpaceX rocket car­ry­ing cargo to the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion dis­in­te­grated over the Florida coast just two min­utes af­ter liftoff Sun­day — the third ma­jor fail­ure for Amer­ica’s com­mer­cial space in­dus­try in eight months.

The ex­plo­sion was a blow to bil­lion­aire Elon Musk’s SpaceX aerospace ven­ture, which has shaken the global launch busi­ness in re­cent years by show­ing it can suc- cess­fully f ly rock­ets at a frac­tion of the price of other providers.

It was too early to de­ter­mine what went wrong Sun­day, but ex­ec­u­tives at the Hawthorne f irm vowed to quickly pin­point the prob­lem. “We will iden­tify the is­sue we ex­pe­ri­enced, f ix it and get back to f light,” Gwynne Shotwell, pres­i­dent of SpaceX, said at Sun­day news con­fer­ence.

The fail­ure cre­ates a chal­lenge for NASA. It was the third cargo ship loaded with food, wa­ter and other sup­plies lost in less than a year.

“We ex­pected … we would lose some ve­hi­cles,” Wil­liam Ger­sten­maier, a NASA as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor, said at the news con­fer­ence. “I

didn’t think we’d lose them all in a one- year time frame, but we have.”

Among the Fal­con 9’ s cargo were parts needed for a wa­ter fil­tra­tion sys­tem, said Michael Suf­fre­dini, man­ager of NASA’s space sta­tion pro­gram.

He said the astro­nauts on the space sta­tion have enough food and wa­ter for about four months and that another Rus­sian re­sup­ply ship was sched­uled to launch Fri­day.

NASA would start plan­ning to bring the astro­nauts back to Earth, he said, only if vi­tal sup­plies dwin­dled to enough for 45 days.

Musk tweeted soon af­ter the fail­ure that there had been “an over­pres­sure event in the up­per stage liq­uid oxy­gen tank.”

“That’s all we can say with con­fi­dence right now,” Musk wrote.

The loss of another com­mer­cial rocket op­er­ated un­der a NASA con­tract comes as the agency’s crit­ics in Congress are threat­en­ing to re­duce fund­ing. Among the tar­gets has been a pro­gram un­der which NASA gave con­tracts to SpaceX and Boe­ing Co. to de­velop space­craft to f ly astro­nauts to the space sta­tion.

SpaceX, short for Space Ex­plo­ration Tech­nolo­gies Corp., has also been lob­by­ing for the op­por­tu­nity to launch the Pen­tagon’s spy satel­lites and other cru­cial space­craft. The com­pany’s con­gres­sional crit­ics have ar­gued that the up­start is not as re­li­able as a Boe­ing-Lock­heed Martin joint ven­ture that has long had a lock on the mil­i­tary work.

“SpaceX will now have to work on their tech­ni­cal prob­lems and po­lit­i­cal prob­lems si­mul­ta­ne­ously,” said Greg Autry, an as­sis­tant pro­fes­sor at USC who fol­lows the space in­dus­try.

The Fal­con 9 rocket had f lown suc­cess­fully 18 times. Sun­day’s cargo mis­sion was the sev­enth un­der the NASA con­tract. It was the com- pany’s first fail­ure since Au­gust 2008, when a dif­fer­ent rocket — the Fal­con 1 — did not reach or­bit.

The ex­plo­sion hap­pened de­spite good weather. The count­down went smoothly.

Af­ter just over two min­utes of f light, NASA lost con­tact with the rocket. Video showed it shat­ter­ing apart, leav­ing a cloud of de­bris.

The suc­cess of the SpaceX mis­sion had be­come more cru­cial af­ter a Rus­sian re­sup­ply ship spun out of con­trol in late April and was de­stroyed as it fell back to Earth.

On Oct. 28, a rocket op­er­ated by NASA’s other com­mer­cial cargo hauler, Or­bital Sciences, ex­ploded just sec­onds af­ter liftoff from a Vir­ginia launch pad.

Or­bital ex­ec­u­tives blamed that fail­ure on a fuel pump in one of the rocket’s 40- year- old Rus­sian en­gines. Or­bital has since re­designed the rocket, aim­ing to f ly it again next year.

“Or­bital Sciences isn’t any­where close to be­ing ready to f ly again,” said Marco Cac­eres, an aerospace in­dus­try an­a­lyst with Teal Group. “It will be months and months be­fore they f ly, and we’re not sure then if they’ll be suc­cess­ful.”

NASA of­fi­cials said that SpaceX would do its own in­ves­ti­ga­tion of the fail­ure un­der the su­per­vi­sion of the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion.

Sun­day’s fail­ure was the third re­cent calamity for the U. S. com­mer­cial space in­dus­try. Just days af­ter Or­bital’s rocket ex­ploded in Oc­to­ber, Vir­gin Galac­tic’s ex­per­i­men­tal space plane was pulled apart over the Mo­jave Desert in a test f light. One of two pilots was killed.

Some an­a­lysts urged Congress not to over­re­act to Sun­day’s loss. They said more fail­ures were ex­pected as the in­dus­try launched more rock­ets — work once done only by NASA.

“Some will at­tempt to make this the tombstone of com­mer­cial space,” said Charles Lu­rio, a Bos­ton space an­a­lyst who pub­lishes the Lu­rio Re­port. “But there is no al­ter­na­tive but to do more of it and more of­ten.”

SpaceX has or­ders for al­most 50 up­com­ing launches — work val­ued at $ 7 bil­lion — from a grow­ing list of gov­ern­ment and cor­po­rate cus­tomers.

Cac­eres, the Teal Group an­a­lyst, said SpaceX must de­ter­mine what caused the ex­plo­sion and f ix the prob­lem quickly so that it can keep those cus­tomers. He said the prob­lem did not ap­pear to be with the Fal­con 9’ s de­sign be­cause the rocket had al­ready f lown 18 times. In­stead, he said, it may have been a clogged fuel line or fuel leak.

Shotwell, SpaceX’s pres­i­dent, said she ex­pected the in­ves­ti­ga­tion to take sev­eral months. She de­clined to say how much the launch had cost. “We don’t talk about costs pub­licly,” she said.

Sun­day’s launch was be­ing closely watched. The com­pany was plan­ning its third at­tempt to land the rocket on an ocean barge af­ter the capsule and sec­ond­stage en­gine sep­a­rated and con­tin­ued to or­bit.

That plan is part of Musk’s goal to make rock­ets re­us­able, which could re­duce the cost of space travel.

Cac­eres urged SpaceX to tem­po­rar­ily halt the ex­per­i­men­tal barge land­ings and fo­cus on mis­sion suc­cess. “They need to de­velop the gov­ern­ment’s trust,” he said.

Scott Kelly, one of the astro­nauts aboard the space sta­tion, tweeted that he had watched the launch.

“Sadly failed,” he wrote. “Space is hard.”

Pho­tog r aphs by Red Hu­ber Or­lando Sen­tinel

THE SPACEX FAL­CON 9 rocket and Dragon space­craft lif t off Sun­day from Cape Canaveral Air Force Sta­tion in Florida. Af­ter just over two min­utes of f light, NASA lost con­tact with the rocket.

THE EX­PLO­SION leaves a cloud of de­bris. Sun­day’s rocket fail­ure was the f irst for SpaceX since Au­gust 2008, when a dif­fer­ent rocket failed to reach or­bit.

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