Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Rocket Re-Supply Disaster Shows Commercial Space Ferrying Not Ready for Big time

The images of the explosion last night, shown on Lawrence O'Donnell's MSNBC show were difficult to watch. What had been touted as a  re-supply mission to the International Space Station (ISS) came a cropper just six seconds after launch. This was for a two-stage Antares space launch vehicle to boost a Cygnus spacecraft into orbit.  Tuesday night’s launch was also to be the first in which a more powerful second-stage motor was to be used.

The launch had been scheduled for 6:22 p.m. from the Wallops Island launch facility on the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Had all gone according to plan, the launch would have been visible for hundreds of miles along the Eastern Seaboard.  The plans called for the spacecraft to dock with the space station and deliver about 5,000 pounds of food and other cargo.
The first stage employed a liquid-fueled rocket powered by two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 engines, according to Orbital Sciences Corporation which company NASA had contracted to do the re-supply.  The second stage was to use a solid motor to boost the Cygnus into orbit. Orbital Corp. said the Tuesday night mission was the first to use a larger, more powerful CASTOR 30XL second stage motor.

The Associated Press,  quoting a NASA spokesman,  reported that none of the cargo was urgently needed on the space station. According to the AP, the Russian space agency is proceeding with its own resupply mission. Which is just as well, else the astronauts may have to start rationing. 

As currently envisaged the commercial -linked program is to deliver up to 44,000 pounds of cargo to the space station over eight missions, including Tuesday’s.   But I have always been skeptical of using private companies even for ferrying cargo. (We were warned last night by O'Donnell's guest James Oberg not to jump to conclusions and form "bias" and fair enough. But I will still do so.

While NASA honchos are convinced that private, commercial craft will fill the  current cargo transport vacuum, I don't buy it. We are really comparing the limited private efforts of disconnected, competing companies with a total capitalization and resource allocation of barely 1/1000 of what NASA had, to the vast monetary resources commanded by a federal agency featuring specialized talent levels hundreds of time greater- in quality and quantity. 

Anyone who seriously believes any of these private operators (even acting in concert) will match Shuttle achievements is either drunk, comatose or suffering from early onset Alzheimer's. It just isn't going to happen in this version of the multi-verse!  We are also comparing a few companies like Space-X  -with a few hundred jobs- against a mass, federally-funded effort that saw cooperative jobs in 32 states - with detailed construction of every single Shuttle piece to specifications, from its heat-resistant tiles, to the internal gyroscopes, to the solid rocket boosters, and the Rafaelo cargo bay (designed to accommodate tons of cargo to the Space station). 

By comparison, none of the planned private spacecraft will have the hauling capability of NASA's Shuttles whose payload bay stretches 60 feet long and 15 feet across. Bays this size hoisted megaton observatories like Hubble. Much of the nearly 1 million pounds of space station was carried to orbit by Space Shuttles. The private companies biggest models, by contrast, will be lucky to lift one one-hundredth the cargo by volume and one five-hundredth by mass, which means many more trips and much more costly fuel expenditures.

Worse, if human assistance is required, or re-staffing the ISS, we'll no longer be able to send seven astronauts up at once - but only two. Because that's the maximum that can be accommodated in the Russian Soyuz craft! As I wrote in an earlier(2010)  blog post,  JFK - who envisioned not only beating the Russians to the Moon but dominating them in space - would be appalled at the spectacle of American astronauts now having to play the role of hitch hikers on Russian craft. The truth is the Shuttle could easily have continued its role of servicing re-supplies to the ISS, as well as further repairs to the Hubble, but unbeknownst to most Americans - the Shuttle program was re-directed to military spy missions. (A number of special Shuttles had been re-fitted for military use.) 

In the meantime, Space-X claims it can get astronauts to the space station within three years of getting the all-clear from NASA. Station managers expect it to be more like five years. Some skeptics say it could be 10 years before Americans are launched again from U.S. soil. I say it's more like 15, especially if we continue our wasteful squandering of money in places like Afghanistan (A remaining quota of 10,000 troops to remain until 2024). That  ongoing Afghanistan farce wastes more money in two months than NASA's WHOLE budget uses,  for one year!  And I won't even count the waste of using Shuttles for military spying.

Sadly, almost everyone appears to have bought into this "private company as the solution to future manned space" formula. But I don't! During the late 60s and early 70s I saw what could be done via a united effort commanding public (tax ) resources the way the military does now. It got us to the Moon and back and would have gotten us to Mars by now - had the Vietnam War not gobbled up $269 billion. 

It can get us to Mars again, as well as supply the ISS, but the will isn't there. Like everything else, the mantra has become: "Privatize Privatize! Privatize!" 

Which could well be the final words on this country's epitaph.

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