Policy Implications of the Antares Failure

Tuesday’s loss of the Orbital Sciences Antares booster carrying a Cygnus cargo vessel to the International Space Station, a failure of space hardware, is also bringing more attention to matters of space policy, where the news is both good and bad.

To begin with, the explosion of the Antares rocket only six seconds into flight, and the loss of one critical supply line to ISS illustrates NASA’s wisdom in pushing for, and achieving a two vendor solution for commercial resupply as part of a mixed fleet approach which also includes international vehicles from Russia, Japan and up until this year, Europe.

As ISS Space Station Program manager Mike Suffredini pointed out during a press conference following the disaster, the orbital outpost is stocked with sufficient supplies to last well into 2015, even if another supply ship does not show up. Fortunately, one is already on the way in the form a Russian Progress freighter which lifted off earlier today.

For now, and in this case “now” may be quite a bit longer than some would like to believe, the U.S. will depend on SpaceX and the Falcon 9/Dragon to keep both the supplies, and the science “riding uphill.”  The latter point in not trivial.  As the only vessel among six spacecraft visiting ISS, (five now that the European ATV has made its final launch) which can return meaningful amounts of cargo safely to Earth, NASA has already been uniquely dependent on the SpaceX Dragon to fulfill the return portion of the station’s research and repair component’s needs since June 2012. To put it another way, after making a $100 billion investment in launching and constructing ISS, and spending $3 billion per year in operating it, the United States and its partners have but a single string solution in maximizing the scientific returns, literally, for all of that effort.

The loss of Taurus and Cygnus serves as a reminder of just how fragile that link is. And while everyone hopes for a speedy return to service for Orbital Sciences, which had performed almost flawlessly until this week,  the combination of pad damage and the need to thoroughly determine the cause of the accident, as well as provide a solution, could stretch on for some time. Against this new reality, NASA’s decision to encourage the European Space Agency to end further ATV flights beyond the one which is currently at ISS, in favor of providing a service module for the first Orion flight aboard SLS is now a bit more questionable. To the extent SpaceX is asked to substitute supplies for science while Cygnus is unavailable, the Station’s research capacity will necessarily be impacted.

For those members of the United States Congress which appear all too eager to reduce NASA’s Commercial Crew program to a single provider over the agency’s objections, the incident should serve as a precautionary warning. Rockets can and do fail, and as many in the industry have rushed to remind us “space is hard.”

So too, apparently is fully recognizing and admitting the full extent of damage done to the American space industrial base by those who have supported policies encouraging dependence on Russian rocket engines, be they forty year old NK-33’s reworked by Aerojet-Rocketdyne, or newly manufactured RD-180’s such as the one which boosted a ULA Atlas V to orbit today.

It is important to recognize that until the cause of the accident is conclusively determined, it is entirely possible that the engines themselves were not the source of the problem. Much of the first stage is built by Yuzhmash in the Ukraine, a country teetering on the edge of economic collapse and in a state of near civil war for the most of this year. By any standard, it is a less than ideal situation.

Still, for the time being it is the engines which are drawing scrutiny in part because of a test stand failure at the Stennis Space Center on May 22nd, as well as another failure in 2011. Speaking at the post launch press conference Tuesday evening,  OSC Vice President Frank Culbertson sought to explain his company’s selection of the Russian engines by praising their “rugged and robust nature,” but he went on to observe with visible frustration that there really weren’t all that many other choices available.

And that is where the Atlas-V comes in. The AJ-26 was not Orbital’s first choice for the Antares booster.  As was revealed in a court documents of a lawsuit OSC filed against United Launch Alliance last year, OSC wanted to acquire the same RD-180 ULA uses for the Atlas-V for the Antares, but was rebuffed when the latter company went to great lengths to prevent it from doing so. Orbital subsequently suspended the lawsuit as the RD-180 became a political hot potato earlier this year when a Russian official threatened to withhold shipments for U.S. military missions, but the arguments it raised against ULA’s sole source chokehold on the engines are resonating a little more loudly today.

Still, OSC’s desire to acquire the current production Russian engine, which might (or might not) have been a preventative cure for Antares, is actually symptomatic of the larger policy problem only touched on by Culbertson. In allowing ULA to continue to import the RD-180 rather than pursue domestic production as first Lockheed Martin and then ULA repeatedly suggested was always a possibility, the Department of Defense actively contributed to the degrading of the launch industrial base it was simultaneously arguing needed support in the form of subsidies provided to none other than first Boeing and and Lockheed Martin beginning in 2003, which then transitioned to joint venture ULA, aggravating the situation by removing even the pretense of competition.

It is of course possible that had both the Air Force and Congress earlier determined what both belatedly discovered this year, that buying critical aerospace components from a potential adversary is remarkably bad policy,  ULA would have elected to directly invest in the domestic version recently departed President Michael Gass stated his company had spent hundreds of millions of dollars studying, and would have been in a position to deny them to Orbital Sciences anyway. SpaceX did much the same thing when according to the OSC lawsuit, it rebuffed approaches to buy the Merlin for Antares.

Given the propensity for outsourcing, it seems much more likely however that either Aerojet or Pratt and Whitney Rocketdyne would have produced the engine, providing a better opportunity for OSC to acquire them. To some extent that is water under the bridge, and ULA to its credit, appears to have moved on to a new, more proactive era with the recently announced decision to partner with Blue Origin to produce a methane/lox main engine called the BE-4.

That does not mean the opportunity for more bad policy decisions is fading however. If the Russian engines are ultimately blamed for causing the loss of Antares, it is a fair bet that Congress is going find the compulsion to overlook the Blue Origin/ULA project and fund a direct replacement for the RD-180 a very compelling one indeed. It needs to move very carefully.

The Antares accident was a failure of a commercial rocket, but it was not a failure of commercial space.  Orbital Sciences was due to make an announcement regarding a replacement for the AJ-26 in a matter of weeks, because the supply is fast running out. Most observers think it will be a solid first stage supplied by ATK, a company with which it is already in the process of completing a “merger of equals.”  With SpaceX moving ahead in testing reusability for the Falcon 9, ULA belatedly taking its future into its own hands, and OSC seeking new engines and new markets for Antares, the future of the U.S. launch industry is bright. Bad policy and a return to monopolistic preference could quickly change all that.

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  1. This incident may also give NASA some defense in the SNC lawsuit. They can plausibly claim that their published criterion of 50% of scoring to cost is too risky for human spaceflight.

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