What the Wallops Island Rocket Explosion Means for Private Space Flight

Last night's Antares rocket disaster might be trouble for NASA's new commercial space flight policy.
What the Wallops Island Rocket Explosion Means for Private Space Flight
Photograph courtesy of NASA.

Last night, a massive explosion jolted Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility as a supply rocket on its way to the International Space Station burst apart and fell back to Earth just seconds after launch. The rocket—built by a Dulles-based private space flight company—was unmanned, and no one on the ground was injured, but the disaster could still send shockwaves through the commercial space flight industry once heralded as the savior of the United States space program, according to space policy experts.

“This will bring into question the wisdom of increasing the dependance on the private sector,” says John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University, where he focuses on space policy and history. “It will raise questions of whether additional government oversight might have prevented this accident, or if more oversight is needed in the future. Do we go back to the old way of doing things?”

The Antares rocket was built by Dulles’s Orbital Sciences, which signed a $1.9 billion contract with NASA in 2008 for eight delivery missions to the ISS. This was the third, carrying food, water, and equipment to the space station. The previous two launches were successful.

The cause of the failure isn’t known yet, but it does remind the public of the risks inherent in any form of space travel. “This is just an illustration of how difficult this is—it’s truly rocket science,” says Roger Handberg, a space policy expert at the University of Central Florida.

“Advocates of commercial space flight said they would do better,” says Handberg. “They were the ones who have always argued, ‘Just get the government out of the way. We can be it better and cheaper and more efficiently.’”

But the explosion is a reminder that privatization can’t solve everything, he says. When a icon like Elon Musk—founder of the commercial space flight company SpaceX, which also has a NASA contract—explains his ideas for the colonization of Mars, it’s treated as visionary. But, says Handberg, “just because you have the vision doesn’t mean your way is going to be smooth.”

American University space policy expert Howard McCurdy says the Silicon Valley approach is very different from the old NASA method. “The new entrepreneurial approach is, ‘Nothing’s perfect the first time,’” he says, drawing comparisons to Microsoft releasing a new version of Windows, then updating it once the bugs and flaws become apparent. “We’re still finding out how well that works for space.”

It’s a leaner, faster approach. But McCurdy says if the source of the explosion turns out to have been preventable, that mentality is vulnerable. “The hope for lower cost access to orbit could be in jeopardy,” he says, with private space flight companies hiring more and more people to prevent another incident, thus driving the cost up.

“This is clearly catastrophic in its impact for Orbital, but launching things into space is hard,” says Logsdon. “This is just a very vidid demonstration of it.”

A statement issued from NASA last night reiterated their support of the company: “Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback.”

What’s important to note, say the experts, is that NASA has always relied on outsourcing the building of rockets to private companies. But after the country’s Space Shuttle program ended in 2011, the agency shifted from intense oversight of that construction to a model of buying a service from the commercial builders. Since then, Logsdon says that people who know the space business have been concerned about companies cutting corners for profit, especially when manned flights are involved.

“We’ll almost certainly see congressional hearings about this,” says Logsdon. “This thing was so dramatic and visible, Congress will certainly have to address it in some form.” Logsdon says the White House will most likely step up oversight in some form, but not break the contracts or go back to the old way of doing business.

But any policy changes probably won’t come in time for the next mission, when SpaceX launches its fifth supply rocket this December. “All eyes are going to be on them,” says Logsdon.

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Staff Writer

Michael J. Gaynor has written about fake Navy SEALs, a town without cell phones, his Russian spy landlord, and many more weird and fascinating stories for the Washingtonian. He lives in DC, where his landlord is no longer a Russian spy.