Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Rocket science is hard

Make no mistake: launching rockets will never be routine. Whenever you put massive amounts of highly explosive fuel into a machine, then light it, there's always a chance that something unplanned will happen.

Challenger and Columbia drove that lesson home all too tragically in 1986 and 2003, respectively. Both space shuttle accidents claimed 14 lives and reaffirmed just how much is at stake every time we light the wick and head towards the heavens.

The U.S. space program suffered another setback tonight when an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket, with a Cygnus cargo vehicle loaded with supplies and experiments destined for the International Space Station, exploded six seconds after liftoff from the seaside Wallops Launch Facility in Virginia (video here.)

Thankfully no one was killed or injured. Insurance companies can figure out what was lost and cut checks to the appropriate companies, and engineers can figure out what went wrong and make changes to ensure it doesn't happen again.

Whatever that "it" is that caused the accident we don't yet know. And when it's discovered and refined to the point that it no longer exists, it's a given that some other "it" will lurk, silently, until someday it, too, causes another accident. There's no such thing as risk-free spaceflight.

The flight, officially known as Orb-3, was part of NASA's plan to privatize cargo deliveries to low earth orbit, which would free it to focus on deep space missions (Orion's first test flight, EFT-1, atop a Delta IV Heavy, is scheduled to fly next month.) Sadly, the accident will cast a shadow over NASA's strategy, and yet again the beleaguered and budget-challenged space agency will have to devote resources to fighting off the naysayers.

They'll trot out the old familiar arguments - spending on space is a waste when the money is needed back on Earth, nobody benefits from it, etc. - and politicians who understand little about what's really at stake will bend to the voters' will. Democracy at its best.

No one ever said it would be easy. But nothing worthwhile ever happens if we simply walk away at the first speed bump. The next flight already awaits.

Your turn: Rocket flight...worth it or not?