Wednesday, October 29, 2014

So, There Was An Earth-Shattering Kaboom...

By now, I'm sure everyone has heard that the private space launch by Orbital Science exploded six seconds into takeoff (side note: They called it a "vehicle anomaly." I'll have to remember that the next time I have to call my insurance company...)

Naturally, this led to a round of navel-gazing and finger-pointing and NASA swearing up and down that this means we CANNOT RELY ON PRIVATE MEANS for launching satellites and such.

Because, you know, NASA's never lost an unmanned rocket, right?

This time, they got lucky. It was an unmanned rocket and no one was hurt on the ground. A shame about the equipment that was lost, of course; I suspect that Orbital Science is going to be seeing an uptick in their insurance policy. Even Flo at Progressive couldn't overlook this one...

It's funny how we seem to have this ingrained need to divide ourselves into camps. Republican vs. Democrat. Left vs. Right. 1911 vs. Glock. OC vs. CC. No matter what the issue, you'll find folks with passionate beliefs as to why their way is the ONE TRUE WAY and that other guy is an idiot/evil/stupid/etc. In this particular case, you've got the battle lines being drawn over whether private space exploration should be allowed/encouraged/banned/etc.

Some feel that an undertaking this large should be the purview of the government, that it is so large and encompasses so much that it's better left to the folks that build the roads and man the armies. Also, since there's much in space that is either directly or indirectly related to the military or to vital communication, the government has a clear need for access to the means to launch satellites, repair crews, etc.

Others feel that private exploration and launches are the only way that space will be conquered, that the same entrepreneurial spirit that gives us lightning fast broadband internet, near-universal wi-fi, and computers so inexpensive that most Americans own at least one will be the wave of space exploration. A generation raised on Star Trek (ironically a government-funded, quasi-military organization) and Robert Heinlein (pretty much the polar opposite) believes that allowing man to reach for the stars on his own will yield great dividends.

It's hard to pick a camp, really. The government has shown a shocking tendency to screw up pretty much everything it comes in contact with, leaving horror stories of graft, corruption, and breathtaking incompetence behind. Need proof? I'll give you two words' worth: Big Dig. We were sold this tremendous bill of goods there, with promises of alleviating traffic in Boston and keeping the cost low. Cut to the end of the project, and it's billions of dollars over budget, traffic is as bad as ever, and large swaths of the ceiling are falling down and killing people.

The only other large-scale work that private industry can point to is the railroad system, and history tells us how that worked out. Robber barons and monopolies led to dynasties like the Vanderbilts and Goulds, people that made (for the time) obscene amounts of money and essentially held the nation hostage to the allure of rapid, easy transit. Compared to horseback, traveling by rail was light-years ahead. In a fairly rapid turn of events, though, rail was superseded by air travel and the interstate highway system.

There's a balance: with the government in charge, we're unlikely to see advances like we do in the private sector. Government wheels move slowly -- the old saw about the heaviest element being Administratium. True innovation is driven by private industry and the chance to have the next big thing -- the next Google, Apple, MicroSoft, or IBM. Clamp down on space travel, leave it solely in the government domain, and we see things like the space shuttle, a vehicle designed by committee that was innovative for a short period, then collapsed under its own weight.

Losing millions of dollars of equipment isn't going to help the private sector argument, though...

That is all.

- Posted using BlogPress from my iPad


DJMoore said...

According to Wikipedia, the Antares first stage engine was a modified NK-33--Russki built, with Ukranian techs supporting the Antares program.

Anonymous said...

I think the may want to rethink using the new General Motors launch ignition switch.


Hafnhaf said...

Watching the launch of the Antares was like watching the launch of the ObamaCare website.

Anonymous said...

NASA claims it isn't reliable enough.

Atlas-Centaur. Fifth launch.

Pogo shut down the engine 2 seconds into the launch.

Highest order detonation on the pad seen ever.

This is called growing pains. Antares will learn from it.

Joseph from IL

Geodkyt said...

It's not just a "modified" engine from the Ukraine.

It's a SOVIET engine, built in the late 1960s and stored since then. Rather than being "private industry", the failure point in this launch was the epitome of a top-down government program.

Note that the reason it was even available for purchase was because the Soviets abandoned the N1 program (Soviet attempt to beat Apollo/Saturn V to the Moon) and warehoused the engines back in 1970 because they never managed to launch one.

This is exactly why Orbital Sciences (and the award of the COTS contract to OSC was so heavily critiqued -- a major, foundational piece of the launch system is literally older than you or I, Jay. Not the design -- the actual engine. And it didn't work real well when it was brand new, either.

But, hey, it was cheaper than actually developing a rocket motor, unlike say, their competitor, SpaceX

Anonymous said...


General Nedelin turning most of their rocket scientists into flambe because he insisted on sitting on a chair smoking a cigarette on the pad during a fueling operation had a lot to do with it.

Joseph in IL

Geodkyt said...

I thought that explosion was a short circuit in the second stage while it was on the pad -- the two cigarette smokers were the ones who survived, because they were sneaking a quick smoke in a bunker several hundred meters away.

But, yeah, turning the best rocket engineers in the Soviet Union into charcoal smears in 1960 certainly hurt later developments. But piss-poor quality control didn't help either.