SpaceX loss a blow for space sta­tion

NASA re­jects con­cerns on astro­nauts’ pro­vi­sions

Los Angeles Times - - BUSINESS - By Melody Petersen and Chris­tine Mai- Duc

NASA prides it­self on pre­par­ing for the worst, but three rocket ex­plo­sions in eight months are test­ing the agency’s backup plans.

Sun­day’s ex­plo­sion of a SpaceX rocket, bound for the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion, fol­lowed the fiery end of an Or­bital Sciences launch in Oc­to­ber and the fail­ure of a Rus­sian re­sup­ply ves­sel in April.

As both Amer­i­can com­pa­nies re­main grounded dur­ing on­go­ing in­ves­ti­ga­tions, ques­tions are now be­ing raised about how long NASA can keep the sci­en­tific re­searchers at the space sta­tion.

NASA of­fi­cials re­main con­fi­dent that the crew has ad­e­quate food and wa­ter un­til the end of Oc­to­ber, but the agency of­fered a less rosy out­look even be­fore the last two fail­ures.

In an April pre­sen­ta­tion to an ad­vi­sory board, of­fi­cials said food stock­piles would hit “the re­serve lev- el” in July and run out Sept. 5, ac­cord­ing to slides from that pre­sen­ta­tion.

“Who would have ever pre­dicted we would have lost these three ve­hi­cles,” Wil­liam Ger­sten­maier, a NASA as­so­ciate ad­min­is­tra­tor, said at a Sun­day news con­fer­ence.

Ac­cord­ing to the April pre­sen­ta­tion’s slides, wa­ter would run out Sept. 17 in the event that the sta­tion’s wa­ter- pro­cess­ing sys­tem failed. That sit­u­a­tion has now be­come more likely with the loss of the SpaceX ship.

For months, NASA has been try­ing to re­pair the sta­tion’s wa­ter sys­tem. The nec­es­sary parts were among Sun­day’s losses. They were also aboard the Or­bital Sciences’ rocket that ex­ploded just sec­onds af­ter liftoff in Oc­to­ber.

Now NASA must re­build the parts for a third time.

“We are reach­ing the limit where we’d say we would stop us­ing the wa­ter pro­ces­sor” and rely in­stead on

wa­ter shipped from Earth or al­ready stored on­board, said Michael Suf­fre­dini, man­ager of NASA’s space sta­tion pro­gram, at a news con­fer­ence Sun­day.

A NASA spokes­woman, Stephanie Schier­holz, dis­missed con­cerns Mon­day that astro­nauts could soon run out of pro­vi­sions.

Schier­holz said that the April pre­sen­ta­tion had in­cluded “very con­ser­va­tive pro­jec­tions” that NASA has since re­vised. She said the space sta­tion has re­serves “car­ry­ing us well through Oc­to­ber even with­out ad­di­tional re­sup­ply.”

While NASA con­tin­ued to re­view the con­se­quences of the lost cargo Mon­day, SpaceX engi­neers at the com­pany’s Hawthorne head­quar­ters were por­ing over reams of data to de­ter­mine why the rocket dis­in­te­grated just 139 sec­onds af­ter liftoff.

The fail­ure Sun­day of the Fal­con 9 rocket was a se­ri­ous blow to up­start SpaceX, which has shaken the launch in­dus­try in re­cent years with its re­li­a­bil­ity and rea­son­able prices.

The dis­as­ter oc­curred just as the com­pany had built up or­ders for al­most 50 launches from a grow­ing base of gov­ern­ment and com­mer­cial cus­tomers. That work — worth $ 7 bil­lion — is on hold un­til the com­pany de­ter­mines the ex­plo­sion’s cause and fixes the prob­lem.

An­a­lysts say SpaceX may be able to re­cover more quickly than Or­bital, which is re­design­ing its rocket af­ter blam­ing the fuel pump in one of its 40- year- old Soviet en­gines.

Marco Cac­eres, an aerospace an­a­lyst with the Teal Group, said there did not ap­pear to be prob­lems with Fal­con 9’ s de­sign since it had al­ready f lown suc­cess­fully 18 times. In­stead, he said, it could be a prob­lem like a clog in a fuel line.

SpaceX needs to f ly again quickly, he said, to avoid los­ing cus­tomers.

“They will want to move this story into history,” Cac­eres said.

SpaceX founder Elon Musk tweeted Mon­day that no cause had been de­ter­mined af­ter “sev­eral thou­sand en­gi­neer­ing- hours” of re­view, mean­ing more than 100 engi­neers were work­ing to in­ves­ti­gate the prob­lem.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors were us­ing soft­ware to re­cover the “fi­nal mil­lisec­onds” be­fore the ex­plo­sion, he tweeted.

For NASA, the fo­cus now turns to another Rus­sian cargo mis­sion sched­uled for Fri­day. The rocket is set to blast off from Kaza­khstan with cargo that in­cludes food, wa­ter and other pro­vi­sions.

NASA’s Suf­fre­dini said Sun­day that a Ja­panese cargo ship sched­uled for an Aug. 16 launch would also be loaded heav­ily with wa­ter.

So far, the agency hasn’t wa­vered with plans to f ly three more astro­nauts to the space sta­tion in late July — adding to the three- per­son crew now on­board.

Suf­fre­dini said the agency aims to have six months of sup­plies on­board the sta­tion at all times.

If sup­plies dwin­dle to 45 days, he said, the agency would be­gin ar­range­ments to bring the astro­nauts back to Earth.

“We al­ways have a ve­hi­cle there that can bring them home safely,” Suf­fre­dini said. “We’re not even close to that kind of con­ver­sa­tion to­day.”

Red Hu­ber TNS

SPACEX ENGI­NEERS at the com­pany’s Hawthorne head­quar­ters were por­ing over reams of data to de­ter­mine why the Fal­con 9 dis­in­te­grated just 139 sec­onds af­ter lif toff from Florida’s Cape Canaveral.

John Raoux As­so­ci­ated Press

NASA aims for six months of space sta­tion sup­plies, says man­ager Michael Suf­fre­dini.


SPACEX’S DRAGON cargo capsule is shown docked to the Earth- fac­ing port of the Har­mony mod­ule of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion last month.

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