Monday, June 29, 2015

SpaceX Rocket Failure Raises Questions About Business of Commercial Space Flight

At the Los Angeles Times, "Rocket explosion is a blow to billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX":

An unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station disintegrated over the Florida coast just two minutes after liftoff Sunday — the third major failure for America's commercial space industry in eight months.

The explosion was a blow to billionaire Elon Musk's SpaceX aerospace venture, which has shaken the global launch business in recent years by showing it can successfully fly rockets at a fraction of the price of other providers.

It was too early to determine what went wrong Sunday, but executives at the Hawthorne firm vowed to quickly pinpoint the problem. "We will identify the issue we experienced, fix it and get back to flight," Gwynne Shotwell, president of SpaceX, said at Sunday news conference.

The failure creates a challenge for NASA. It was the third cargo ship loaded with food, water and other supplies lost in less than a year.

"We expected … we would lose some vehicles," William Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, said at the news conference. "I didn't think we'd lose them all in a one-year time frame, but we have."

Among the Falcon 9's cargo were parts needed for a water filtration system, said Michael Suffredini, manager of NASA's space station program.

He said the astronauts on the space station have enough food and water for about four months and that another Russian resupply ship was scheduled to launch Friday.

NASA would start planning to bring the astronauts back to Earth, he said, only if vital supplies dwindled to enough for 45 days.

Musk tweeted soon after the failure that there had been "an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank."

"That's all we can say with confidence right now," Musk wrote.

The loss of another commercial rocket operated under a NASA contract comes at a time when the agency's critics in Congress are threatening to reduce funding. Among the targets has been a program under which NASA gave contracts to SpaceX and Boeing Co. to develop spacecraft to fly astronauts to the space station.

SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has also been lobbying for the opportunity to launch the Pentagon's spy satellites and other crucial spacecraft. The company's congressional critics have argued that the upstart is not as reliable as a Boeing-Lockheed Martin joint venture that has long had a lock on the military work.

"SpaceX will now have to work on their technical problems and political problems simultaneously," said Greg Autry, an assistant professor at USC who follows the space industry.

The Falcon 9 rocket had flown successfully 18 times. Sunday's cargo mission was the seventh under the NASA contract.

It was the company's first failure since August 2008, when a different rocket — the Falcon 1 — did not reach orbit.

The explosion happened despite good weather. The countdown went smoothly.

After just over two minutes of flight, NASA lost contact with the rocket. Video showed it shattering apart, leaving a cloud of debris.

The success of the SpaceX mission had become more crucial after a Russian resupply ship spun out of control in late April and was destroyed as it fell back to Earth.

Before that, on Oct. 28, a rocket operated by NASA's other commercial cargo hauler, Orbital Sciences, exploded just seconds after liftoff from a Virginia launch pad.

Orbital executives blamed that failure on a fuel pump in one of the rocket's 40-year-old Russian engines. Orbital has since redesigned the rocket, aiming to begin flying it again next year.

"Orbital Sciences isn't anywhere close to being ready to fly again," said Marco Caceres, an aerospace industry analyst with Teal Group. "It will be months and months before they fly, and we're not sure then if they'll be successful."

NASA officials said that SpaceX would do its own investigation of the failure under the supervision of the Federal Aviation Administration...