Tragedy and Triumph in Space

In the last three weeks, we have seen two space program tragedies and one triumph.  Orbital Sciences Corporation lost an Antares rocket seconds after launch from the Virginia coast on 28 Oct 2014. Virgin Galactic lost a SpaceShipTwo in a crash in the Mojave Desert on 31 Oct 2014.  And on 12 Nov 2014, the European Space Agency’s Rosetta orbiter successfully landed a Philae probe on a comet. 

On 28 Oct 2014 at 6:22pm Eastern Time, an Orbital Sciences Corporation unmanned Antares rocket exploded in a ball of fire off the Virginia coast, a few seconds after launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.  The Antares rocket carried no personnel, but it did have a Cygnus cargo module carrying 5000 pounds of supplies and experiments bound for the International Space Station (ISS).  Among the destroyed cargo were food and other supplies for the six crew aboard the ISS, experiments and a classified military payload.  Four prior flights of the Antares had been successful.

The next day, the Russian Space Agency successfully launched a Progress cargo module with additional supplies.  Based on the same design as the Soyuz manned spacecraft, the Progress successfully docked with the ISS.  The crew of the ISS were never actually in danger and reportedly had enough food and other supplies to last an additional four to six months.

Preliminary investigation into the spectacular failure of the Antares suggests that the turbopumps of a refurbished Soviet-era rocket motor failed.  Orbital Sciences purchased several of the rocket motors which had been refurbished by GenCorp Inc’s Aerojet Rocketdyne division and sold as AJ-26.  The AJ-26 is a heavily modified NK-33 engine originally built for an abandoned Soviet moon program.  Orbital Sciences stated that it will ground the Antares until its problems are resolved.  Over the next several months, Orbital Sciences will, meet its scheduled resupplies to the ISS by purchasing rockets from competitors.  Orbital also stated its intent to replace the AJ-26 rocket motors.

On 31 Oct 2014, spacepilot Peter Seibold survived the crash of a Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo.  His co-pilot Michael Alsbury did not survive.  Seibold and Alsbury did successfully separate their SpaceShipTwo from its launch plane and reach an altitude of 9 miles.  Alsbury prematurely engaged the re-entry systems and then the SpaceShipTwo, designed by tycoon Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, began to break apart in flight.  Virgin Galactic’s engineers designed all their own components.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, before space launches became commonplace, the US Air Force, NASA and the Soviet Space Program each suffered rocket explosions on the launchpad.  The Soviets lost Cosmonauts on Soyuz missions and NASA lost astronauts aboard in the Apollo 1 fire and aboard Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia.  The Apollo program was delayed by 18 months while engineers redesigned the Saturn launch vehicle.  But Project Apollo continued and successfully landed several missions on the moon and docked with Soviet Soyuz vehicles in Earth orbit.  And the US returned Astronauts to space aboard Discovery, Endeavour and Atlantis. Since NASA retired the Space Shuttles in 2011, Russian Soyuz vehicles, launched from Kazakhstan, have ferried Astronauts and Cosmonauts to and from the ISS.  Russian Progress cargo modules and Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX) unmanned Dragon modules have kept the ISS supplied.  SpaceX is contracted with NASA to employ a manned version of the Dragon to ferry crews of five to seven to and from the ISS.  United Launch Alliance is also contracted with NASA to carry Astronauts.

On 12 Nov 2014, the European Space Agency (ESA) successfully conducted the first ever unmanned landing upon a comet.  ESA launched Rosetta on 2 March 2004 and it travelled 6.4 billion kilometres through the Solar System before arriving in vicinity of the comet on 6 August 2014.  Three months later, a Philae lander, deployed from the Rosetta, landed successfully on the comet and returned data to ESA control centers.  The Japanese had previously sent an unmanned probe to fly near another comet, but the ESA Philae was the first to land on a comet, as neither the Soviets/Russians nor the USA had previously done so.

Opinions expressed in this post are my own, unless otherwise cited.

Have you seen the ISS as it passes over your town?  Have you seen Space Shuttle or cargo rocket launched?  Tell us about  it in the comments.

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