HUNTSVILLE, Ala. — This week's Antares rocket explosion marks the first big failure in NASA's campaign to resupply the International Space Station using low-cost commercial cargo ships — and experts say it demonstrates the wisdom of not relying on a single spaceship operator.
That’s a big lesson for the next giant leap in human spaceflight, which will put astronauts on commercial space transports.
"It underscores that this is a very tough business," said Jeff Bingham, a former Senate aide who is now a space policy consultant and a member of the National Academies' Space Studies Board. "We've got to mediate expectations and help people understand that these things happen."
Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo capsule were supposed to carry more than 5,000 pounds (2,200 kilograms) of supplies, equipment and experiments to the space station. But seconds after Tuesday's liftoff, the rocket erupted in flames and was destroyed. The spacecraft and its cargo were lost, and the launch pad at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia suffered heavy damage. No injuries were reported, however.
On Wednesday, the Federal Aviation Administration provided Orbital with the data records that were needed to start investigating the cause of the failure, said Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA's associate administrator for human exploration and operations. "I'm not even going to speculate on what the cause could be," he told reporters attending a space symposium in Huntsville.
Failure is an option
In the wake of the shuttle fleet's retirement in 2011, Virginia-based Orbital is providing one of the two launch systems that operate under NASA contracts to carry payloads to the space station. Orbital is getting $1.9 billion for eight flights, while California-based SpaceX is receiving $1.6 billion for 12 flights.
The cargo commercialization model was established back in 2005. That's when Mike Griffin, who was NASA administrator at the time, set up the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services program, or COTS.
"If somebody had told us on Day One of the COTS program that Orbital would fly four times without problems and lose the fifth one, we'd have taken that deal," Griffin told NBC News, "because developing a rocket is a big challenge, and we didn't expect to do it without failures."
Gerstenmaier said NASA planners had anticipated potential failures by stockpiling months' worth of supplies on the space station. "The testimony that this worked is that we're not in a world of hurt," he told reporters.
Experts almost unanimously said that the failure was a reminder of how hard spaceflight can be, but independent space consultant Charles Lurio told NBC News there was a deeper lesson as well.
"What it actually reminds us of is that to make any technology practical we need to try many technical paths and enable the maximum number of commercial providers to explore such options," Lurio wrote in an email. "That has happened for 50 years in computer systems and many other technologies, but it was choked off for space by the lingering 'central planning' approach of Apollo."
Lessons for the future
Orbital's executives say they expected to determine the cause of the failure and remedy any shortcomings within a few months. They also say that NASA and other authorities have been supportive. "People are giving us time to do it right," Kate Kronmiller, Orbital's senior vice president for government relations, told NBC News.
NASA recently began preparations for the next multibillion-dollar round of space station cargo contracts, and Orbital and SpaceX are expected to submit proposals. So are Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp., two other companies that have designed spaceships to carry either cargo or crew members. Orbital's setback could conceivably make the competition for future contracts more, um, competitive.
At the same time, NASA has selected SpaceX and Boeing to build space taxis capable of transporting astronauts to and from the space station. Orbital did not submit a space-taxi proposal, and Sierra Nevada is contesting NASA's selection process.
Gerstenmaier noted that the crew-carrying spaceships would have more elaborate safety systems than the cargo-carrying craft. "That's OK to me, because we were able to get the benefit of getting cargo to the station in a timely manner and enable a new industry," he said.
This month, U.S. Rep. Lamar Smith, the Texas Republican who chairs the House Science Committee, suggested that NASA should back only one type of space taxi — and rely on the more expensive Orion deep-space capsule as a backup. The Orion capsule is being developed for NASA by Lockheed Martin, but it's not due to be launched on its first crewed flight until sometime around 2021 or 2022.
The Antares failure suggests that reducing the commercial options would be a bad idea, Bingham said.
"It clearly demonstrates that we need backup capabilities," he told NBC News. "When you down-select to one, you're actually saying that we're still going to regard the Russians as our backup."