Deadly missions


Risks involved in space exploration

The quest to explore the unknown has remained an integral part of the human spirit down the centuries. In fact, the space age heralded by the launch of Soviet Sputnik in 1957 stands out as a sterling tribute to the human vision to look beyond the spaceship earth to sustain human presence in the final frontiers.

But then the space exploration continues to remain costly, challenging and dangerous exercise. For instance, eighteen astronauts and cosmonauts have so far paid with their lives while flying into space whereas three others got killed while going through the exercise of ground rehearsal. And in the last week of October 2014, two space mishaps in quick succession, rattled the world by bringing home the dangers and perils associated with the exploration of the final frontiers.  Both these space missions, which were spearheaded by the privately owned enterprises, were certainly a big blow to the dreams of “cheap access to space” scripted by the new age space industry.

First incident was of mid-space explosion of the Antares rocket of the US based space outfit,  Orbital Sciences Corporation, carrying a resupply mission to the International  Space Station (ISS). The Cygnus cargo ship propelled by the Antares rocket was to deliver a 2,200-kg supplies to ISS. However, the saving grace of this failed mission was that there was no human casualty as it was an unmanned mission. This was the third supply mission of Orbital Sciences which had the track record of successfully delivering cargo to ISS on two earlier occasions.

Engine malfunction

It is suspected that malfunction in one of the two engines (named AJ-26) propelling the  Antares rocket was responsible for this mishap. Incidentally, the Antares rocket is built around the modified version of half a century old N1 Soviet era rocket, an enormous vehicle that suffered four failures including one launch pad explosion before being abandoned. As it is, the N1 was meant for the grandiose lunar missions that Soviet Union had envisaged as a counter poise to American lunar landing mission. But it was never used. Following the break up of the mighty Soviet Union in early 1990s, the N1 rocket was bought by an American company and it was the modified version of this rocket which was incorporated into the Antares vehicle. Orbital Sciences is operating under a US$1.9-billion NASA contract to deliver cargo to ISS.

In keeping with the policy of involving private enterprises to cut costs, NASA has also awarded US$2.6-billion contract to Space X to build a transportation system for astronauts within the next three years. Space-X was also the recipient of earlier US$1.6-billion contract to deliver cargo to ISS.

SpaceX , an upstart rocketry founded by the internet tycoon Elon Musk, has already accomplished four  supply missions to ISS  out of a planned twelve. Space X  is using Falcon rocket and Dragon cargo-ship for it supply missions to ISS.   Space X plans to reduce the cost of flying to space by reusing the rocket engines. It has already test fired a rocket called Grasshopper to an altitude of 2,400 ft and  successfully retrieved it. Elon Musk has a vision to reach the Red Planet  sometime in the future.

Antares rocket is capable of lofting a payload weighing little over 6,000-kg into a low earth orbit. The failure of Antares rocket would nudge NASA to continue with its dependence on the Russian and European delivery vehicles to sustain supplies to ISS.

Against this backdrop, in the aftermath of the Antares rocket crash, the Russian Progress Cargo spacecraft that has regularly been undertaking such missions since 2000, accomplished a successful resupply mission to ISS. With the clear cut objective of sustaining the operations of ISS well beyond its current 2020 timeline, regular supplies were sought to be realized through the involvement of private space outfits. As such in 2006, the NASA unveiled a program called Commercial Orbital Transportation Service. And as part of this program, in 2008, Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contracts were signed with Orbital Sciences for 8 resupply missions and  with Space X for 12 resupply missions. Orbital Sciences also makes small satellites and launches a variety of other rockets.

The failure of Orbital Sciences space mission has come as a shocker to the space business community. “While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted  their lives to exploration,” noted NASA administrator Charles Bolden in a statement. “Spaceflight is incredibly difficult and we commend the passion of all in the space communities who take on the risk to push the boundaries of the human achievement”.

The widely held view is that these privately funded space enterprises are looking at the ways and means to reduce the cost of space travel and cutting corners leads to below par performance of the systems. “The engineering and physics of space tend to be unforgiving no matter who is doing this,” says Scott Pace, Director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and a former Asst. Administrator of NASA. Clearly and apparently, after setting new highs in space exploration including human landing on the moon, NASA took to the route of tightening budgets and redefining its missions following the dwindling political and public support to the American space activities.

“NASA is looking for cheaper access to space,” says Marco A Caceres, a space analyst with the consultant firm Teal Group. The trouble, he says, is that reliability and price are often tied together. “It may be unreasonable to expect to pay under a certain amount to get a reliable vehicle. That comes at a cost,” Caceres says.

On another occasion on October 31, 2014 unceremonious crash of the Spaceship Two of Virgin Galactic promoted by the UK billionaire Richard Branson in mid air over Mojave desert claimed the life of one of its pilots while the other was hurt grievously. This flight marked the testing of a new type of fuel to power the engine of the Virgin Galactic spaceship. Unlike Orbital Science which has a NASA contract, Virgin Galactic is fully reliant on investors and ticket sales for cash. At US$2,50,000 per ticket, 700 people have put down their deposits for Virgin Galactic flights to outer space. Such flights were originally planned for a 2008 take off. But then technological complexities involved in the space travel system being developed and tested by Virgin Galactic resulted in the delay.

Following the change of rocket fuel, Virgin had hoped to begin flying passengers-who had booked their flights- by 2015. This now looks highly uncertain. Although Virgin is aiming only to take passengers to the edge of space and not into full blown orbit, its technology is, in many ways, trickier and more complicated than the  missions operated by Orbital science. The involvement of space-plane to boost the spaceship has made things tougher for Virgin Galactic.

Space tourism

The  Galactic Spaceship Two is carried on a four engine dual fuselage aircraft known as  WhiteKnight Two. After its release at an altitude of 45,000-ft, the Spaceship gets activated to ascend into space under rocket power and return to earth on completion of the mission. The Spaceship Two is designed to carry two pilots and six passengers. In the aftermath of this accident, critics have been quick to raise doubts regarding its safety standards and also on the new rocket fuel being used. Rocket technology involving space plane used by Virgin Galactic is quite complex. Only Space Shuttle and X-15 have previously flown in such configurations. The novel challenges of this technology had led to delays in the target date when the company would finally start ferrying passengers to the edge of outer space. The Virgini Galactic Spaceship ride enables the passengers experience  weightlessness ,dark skies and view the curvature of the earth.

Another company that is targeting suborbital tourism is XCOR Aerospace through a unique concept of a runway take off under rocket power and subsequent landing of its Lynx spacecraft. But it is lagging behind Virgin Galactic in preparing the ground for operating space tourism services.

This unexpected crash of Virgin Galactic spaceship has certainly dented the UK billionaire high flying tourism dreams. As it is, the ground control team had lost its contact with Spaceship Two following its release from the WhiteKnight Two jet that carried it aloft. In the immediate aftermath of this crash, Virgin Galactic said that the spaceship experienced a serious anomaly.

“There is a price to be paid for a whole new era of complex and risky business. A lot of money is going  to be lost and people are going to die. If you want to develop this industry, any time soon, you have to take some risks and that means flying a lot “ says Marco Caceres, Director of Space Studies for Fairfax, a Virginia based Teal Group outfit.

The US transportation authorities who were quick to  initiate investigation into the Galactic  spaceship  mishap  said that that coming to the conclusion on the reasons for the mishap could take upto a year. National Transportation Safety Board acting Chairman Christopher Hart had revealed that debris from the Spaceship Two rocket crash was strewn over an area of  five miles long, indicating a likelihood in flight break up.

However Richard Branson has insisted that he was undeterred and his dream of commercial space travel was still alive. The doomed Virgin Galactic flight of SpaceShip Two-which is designed to carry tourists on a shot but expensive trip to the very edge of the space-marked the first time the spaceship had flown on a new kind of plastic based rocket fuel mixture. This shocking mishap has dealt a devastative setback to commercial space tourism.  Scaled Composites, the maker of Virgin Galactic SpaceShip system, did not come out with explanation for the accident. Scaled Composites promoted by Burt Rutan through its Spaceship One, an air launched all composite rocket ship, had bagged the US$10,000,000 Ansari X-Prize for private sector innovation in the field of manned space exploration.

Space industry analysts believe the twin mishaps have gone to highlight the attention on the shortcomings associated with  scaled down spending on NASA and giving entities beholden to investors a  vastly expanded role in orbital and suborbital flights. Rightly, they are of view that companies  are not flying dozens of test flights before  operational missions as NASA did during the 1960s and  1970s.

Before this mishap, Branson had said that Virgin Galactic was targeting its first commercial flight in Spring 2015 with the billionaire and his son to be the first passengers on the maiden flights. He also revealed that 800 would be space tourists had signed up for US$2,50,00 trips. Virgin Galactic plans to operate commercial flights from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Virgin Galactic backed by the Abu Dhabi based Aabar Investments says that it is still on track to become the world’s first commercial space-liner, having accepted more than US$80-million in deposits from a clientele that include some of the world’s highest net worth individuals. Virgin Galactic had attracted celebrity clients ranging from Stephen Hawking to singer Sarah Brightman.

Private space flight, a burgeoning industry built on the dream of taking adventurers and scientists aloft, suffered a setback after two accidents in a span of three days last October.

In the aftermath of this mishap, a statement issued by Virigin Galactic said, “ At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontiers while keeping the safety as our Northern Star. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue.”

All said and done, the concern over the safety of space tourism operations is as serious as real.  Evidently, absence of a stringent regulation is expected to come in the way of giving a boost to the fledgling sector of space tourism.

For right at the moment, there are no well defined globally enforceable set of laws to ensure the safety of spacecraft carrying tourists to near earth altitudes. While the safety norms could be applied for the flight of mother ship carrying the rocket capsule which gets detached at 16-kms altitude, it would be difficult and trickier to cover the flight of rocket capsule with safety regulations. As such the leaders of the global commercial space industry should mull drafting of rules and regulation covering the entire spectrum of space tourism operations.