A SpaceX rocket that exploded after liftoff on Sunday was the third resupply mission in a row to the International Space Station to end in catastrophe.
The tons of food, equipment, and experiments that have gone up in flames over the last year are raising concerns about supplying the space station and the astronauts who live there—and about the future of the burgeoning private space industry.
For the three astronauts living aboard the space station, the clock is ticking.
“The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. But with the string of recent losses, the space station is due to dip into reserve supplies of food and the canisters that collect toilet waste by the end of July, and to run out by the first week of September, according to NASA’s estimates.
The accident is the second blow in less than a year to NASA’s efforts to outsource space station deliveries to private companies. (Read our space blog, No Place Like Home.)
In October, an Antares rocket launched by the space agency’s other shipper, Orbital ATK, turned into a fireball seconds after launch. In April, another rocket, flown not by NASA but by Russian space agency Roscosmos, spun crazily out of orbit before burning up in the atmosphere more than a week later.
Only two more cargo missions are scheduled to fly to the space station before September.
On Friday, Roscosmos plans to send up a Soyuz rocket similar to the one that botched the resupply mission in April. The Russians claim to have identified and fixed the problem, and used a Soyuz to put a satellite in orbit earlier this month.
The other mission is a Japanese rocket slated for August that has failed once in 28 launches since 2001.
It's a lot of pressure on two missions. “If those missions are successful, the accident is a problem but not a crisis,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “Only having two to three months of supplies is not a comfortable situation.”
Every young launch vehicle has its failures, says Henry Hertzfeld, a space-policy expert at George Washington University. It’s all part of the rocket scientist learning curve. “In the short run, these accidents raise questions and issues,” he says. “We’ll probably be okay in the long run as long as we don’t have a series of failures in any one company.”
But that may be small consolation to the astronauts on board the space station, two of whom are expecting to stay on past September for 15-month stints, during which time the number of crew will double, from three to six.
Hitching Rides With Others
SpaceX was awarded a contract with NASA before the retirement of the space shuttle in 2011. With no cargo hauler to fulfill its obligations to the International Space Station, the United States would have to pay Russia to make supply runs.
Private U.S. space companies were seen as a way to bring that business home.
But Sunday's misstep raises questions about what happens to NASA plans for shuttling astronauts. For the time being, NASA astronauts hitch rides up to the space station on Russian rockets. SpaceX and Boeing are both building space taxis slated to take over that task in 2017.
SpaceX’s accident could delay its crewed mission, which must meet higher standards than its missions for carrying cargo.
“This probably will mean that Boeing’s capsule will carry crew first,” says Logsdon. Also of concern: One of the cargo items destroyed on Sunday was an add-on for the station designed to allow both companies’ capsules to dock.
Just how much a setback Sunday's snafu proves to be for SpaceX will depend on what went wrong and how difficult it will be to fix. That will take some time to investigate. “We’re talking at least months, if not a year,” says Hertzfeld.
The company’s private business, which SpaceX says amounts to $7 billion, probably won’t be in jeopardy, Logsdon says, given the full schedules and higher prices of other options. But the U.S. Air Force may think twice about awarding contracts for missions related to national security to the young upstart.
SpaceX only recently won the right to bid for such missions against the venerable United Launch Alliance, a joint venture by Lockheed Martin and Boeing that flies more expensive Atlas and Delta rockets. “For the next round of competition for military contracts, this will hurt SpaceX’s chances,” says Logsdon.
Going to space has always been a risky endeavor, but few expected such a spectacular failure from SpaceX. Its larger-than-life founder, Elon Musk, has been the golden boy of the so-called new space movement, which evangelizes the possibility of cheap commercial spaceflight.
“SpaceX has been the poster company for new space,” says Logsdon. “This takes a little of the luster off them."