It has not been a good week for what is sometimes termed the “commercial space industry” but is more often referred to as “New Space.” The Antares explosion a few seconds after launch on a cargo mission to the International Space Station and the crash of the prototype of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo during a test flight are, taken together, a major setback for the people who want to change the way the space industry does business. The goal is to make space travel more like low-cost commercial air travel and less like expensive and wasteful military operations.
One can confidently predict that a generation from now the feud between Old Space (the big aerospace corporations and those parts of NASA and the Department of Defense that work with them) and New Space (emerging entrepreneurial or commercial firms and the other parts of NASA and the DoD that work with them) will seem as meaningless as the war between the Hatfields and the McCoys. This is already evident in that Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipTwo, is owned by Northrop Grumman, an old-style aerospace conglomerate if ever there was one.
As for now, however, the feud is still in full swing. The spectacular explosion of the Orbital Sciences Antares launcher off the coast of Virginia and the deadly SpaceShipTwo crash in California are going to provide the opposition to New Space with dozens of excuses to pressure the U.S. government to give up its flirtation with the upstarts and return to the straight, narrow, and expensive path of business as usual.
The New Space industry will have to persuade the government and especially Congress that the accidents were, if not a normal part of the dangerous and difficult business of sending payloads into orbit and of developing new vehicles, then an unfortunate possibility. If they can do that, the programs will ultimately proceed on course. Orbital, Virgin Galactic, and the New Space industry as a whole will, fair or unfairly, be judged on how long it takes them to recover from these disasters. After the Columbia disaster in 2003, it took NASA more than two years to get the shuttle back into operation. By contrast, the Russians recently returned their workhorse heavy-launch Proton rocket back into service in a matter of months. These rocket systems are by no means similar, but their functions are the same: to get “stuff” into space.
Orbital Sciences is itself a bit of an anomaly. Founded in 1982, it’s not exactly Old Space, but it’s not usually considered New Space either. Over the years it has developed a certain level of expertise in putting together hybrid space-launch systems. Its first launch system, the Pegasus rocket dropped from an old L1011 airliner, has proven surprisingly durable as a way to put relatively small payloads into orbit. However, its Taurus (now called the Minotaur C) system can only be described as a failure. The company also has a profitable sideline in transforming old U.S. missiles into targets for America’s missile defense projects.
It is this ability to reuse and refurbish elements of older rocket systems that won Orbital Sciences the second COTS (commercial orbital transportation system) contract, after the initial bid-winning firm went belly up. The Antares rocket that blew up last Tuesday used old Russian NK-33 engines.
The engines had been imported to the U.S. in the 1990s and were refurbished by the Aerojet Corporation and renamed AJ-26. The engines are remarkable pieces of technology but had remaining in storage for decades, and even the best refurbishing experts could not be sure they would work as designed. Experts suggest that a combination of metallurgical failure and flaws in the turbo-pumps that feed liquid oxygen to the rocket engine are to blame, but it’s far too early to know for sure what happened.
Likewise, the SpaceShipTwo crash is going to be under investigation for at least a few months. The rocket plane was flying with a new type of fuel, essentially a combination of laughing gas (nitrous oxide) and “polyamide-based plastic,” instead of the previously used mix of laughing gas and “hydroxylterminated polubutadiene” (rubber, to the rest of us).
Over the years SpaceShipTwo has had problems with its unusual propulsion system. In 2007, an accident during a ground test killed two technicians. On the other hand, the airframe has had fewer flaws than usual in a prototype aircraft, a tribute to Burt Rutan’s original concept. However, the first report from the National Transportation Safety Board claims that the rocket plane’s deceleration system — the way the tails flip up to slow down the craft — was at fault. A definitive report will not be published until the middle of next year.
Already some commentators are saying kadish for New Space, but this will prove as premature as the announcements of the death of Old Space. Suborbital space tourism is going to happen, under the auspices of, if not Virgin Galactic, then its competitor, the smaller company Xcor. With its two-seat Lynx rocket plane, Xcor will corner the market, at least for a little while.
Meanwhile, the rest of the New Space industry — including SpaceX, with its successful Falcon 9 launcher and its Dragon capsules — will probably go from strength to strength. The other smaller New Space firms will continue building and testing space systems, some of which will prove profitable.
So far the government has seen fit to regulate these smaller efforts with a fairly light hand, but that may change now, and if it does the results will not be good. However, the creative capitalist drive behind these companies is not going to disappear. Despite tragedies and setbacks, the dreamers will not give up.
— Taylor Dinerman is a New York–based writer and author of the satire Subway Lists and Other Writings from the iPhone Era.