Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It Really Is Rocket Science

Anyone paying any attention will know by now that an Antares rocket carrying a Cygnus supply ship exploded seconds after liftoff at the Wallop facility.

The Cygnus craft contained supplies for the ISS and a number of scientific experiments - including a tech demo for the crowd funded telescope ARKYD (NOT, as I initially thought, the telescope itself, although the accident will no doubt delay the launch) and over a dozen experiments designed by student scientists. My thoughts go out to every scientist who lost an experiment, to the launch staff at Orbital Sciences and everyone else involved.

Nobody was injured in the accident - everyone was where they were supposed to be, and well clear of the pad.

What we know now?

Something went wrong at about T+6. One eye witness stated he saw a trailing smoke and fire plume from the rocket. At T+16, after the rocket had cleared the water tower, range safety hit the self destruct to prevent a worse accident. The result was a spectacular fireball and explosion, and a second fireball as what was left landed back on the pad (no doubt the safety officer's intent). Blazing debris was spread across the nearby beach. The pad itself is seriously damaged.

Fortunately, the mission was insured (small comfort for the student scientists). However, Mike Suffredini, the program manager, has promised that all of the young people will be given space on an upcoming mission.

The worst part for Orbital Sciences is the damage to their pad (the only one they have), which may take weeks or even months to repair. In the mean time, the ISS astronauts still have plenty of supplies.

Pure personal speculation. Whatever the anomaly was, in order for the range safety officer to hit self destruct right above the facility, there must have been some concern that the bird was going to fly west instead of east, as it would have caused less damage to the facility and the pad (less replaceable than an unmanned rocket) to destruct the rocket over the water. Or, it was already descending  and he was trying to mitigate the damage. I can't do more than speculate at this point. Accident investigators are likely to be working on this one for a while.

Rockets are tricky beasts and there is no routine rocket launch. Is this a reminder that we need to work harder towards developing alternative earth to orbit technologies? A space elevator has become far more feasible of late. Mass drivers or railguns are unlikely to be feasible on Earth but could be very handy on the moon. And, of course, it's definitely time to look further into solving the spaceplane problem.

Not to knock the great work being done in conventional rocketry by Space X and, of course, Orbital Sciences (despite this setback) - let's start thinking outside the box.

Instead of doing more rocket science, let's do some real innovation.