Image of a rocket launching.

It's Just Rocket Science

Rik Williams
Nov 13, 2014

On October 28, an Antares rocket destined for the International Space Station malfunctioned on takeoff at Wallops Island, Virginia and was destroyed. Three days later and 2,000 miles away, Virgin Galactic’s manned SpaceShipTwo disintegrated during a test flight, killing one pilot and injuring the other. 
 
“Rocket science” has become synonymous with technically difficult endeavors, and such losses underscore just how challenging it can still be – 70 years after rockets began venturing into what we now consider space. What sets these incidents apart from past disasters, however, is that both vehicles were products of the relatively young private spaceflight industry: Orbital Sciences Corporation built the Antares rocket, while SpaceShipTwo is a key component of billionaire Richard Branson’s efforts to make space travel accessible to private citizens. The occurrence of two such crashes in quick succession raises questions about whether commercial spaceflight will ever be safe and viable.
 
Of course, the same question was likely posed during the early days of government-led spaceflight -- the rocket testing montage from The Right Stuff comes to mind. Even in recent years, new rocket models often face initial difficulties. For example, while Europe’s Ariane 5 now has a perfect track record for over 60 consecutive launches, four of its first 15 were either partial or total failures (worse than Orbital’s Antares, relatively speaking). New technologies are extensively tested and investigated for potential failure modes, but a few “unknown unknowns” almost inevitably remain.
 
To be viable, commercial space companies are heavily reliant on innovation and new technologies, and may thus be more vulnerable to some of these unanticipated pitfalls. One of Orbital’s innovations with the Antares vehicle was (somewhat incongruously) the use of refurbished, decades-old Soviet engines. These are remarkably powerful for their weight, allowing the rocket to carry significantly more cargo for a given amount of fuel. However, after the explosion in Virginia, Orbital deemed the engines too unreliable to continue using. Either new lightweight engines, or weight savings elsewhere, will be needed to keep their rockets competitive.
 
Regardless of how many innovations and weight-saving technologies are brought to bear, the fact remains that sending things into space is both technically challenging and highly energy-intensive. It’s difficult enough when you’re working with multibillion-dollar NASA budgets; making flights cheap enough to be commercially viable in vehicles we trust with our lives only compounds the complexity.
 
Will innovations in the private sector ever bring us to a point where trips to space are attainable for millions, and satellite launches are cheap? We can certainly hope, but we won’t know for certain until we try.
Image courtesy of SpaceX/Unsplash.com

Rik Williams

Rik is a data scientist on the Policy, Research and Economics team at Uber Technologies, Inc. Prior to joining Uber, he spent many years doing research in observational astrophyics and served two years as a AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow at USAID.

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