Antares rocket explosion: Will it set back the commercialization of space?

The explosion of an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station has raised some questions as to whether the incident will pose a significant setback of the commercialization of the space industry.

Orbital Sciences rocket was carrying a capsule loaded with experiments, equipment

An unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket explodes shortly after takeoff at Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va. on Tuesday, Oct. 28, 2014. No injuries were reported following the first catastrophic launch in NASA's commercial spaceflight effort. (Jay Diem, Eastern Shore News/Associated Press)

The explosion of an unmanned commercial supply rocket bound for the International Space Station has raised some questions as to whether the incident will pose a significant setback of the commercialization of the space industry.

"The big fear here is that the reputation of this private company, Orbital Sciences, which is one of several private companies, that are going up into the International Space Station, whether this is going to erode the confidence that private companies can actually do this job," said Bob McDonald, host of CBC Radio's Quirks & Quarks.

Orbital Sciences Corp.'s unmanned Antares rocket blew up just moments after liftoff Tuesday evening from the Virginia coast. The rocket was carrying a capsule loaded with space station experiments and equipment for NASA. No one was injured when it exploded, shooting flaming debris down onto the launch area and into the ocean.​

'Don't have much margin for error'

“At the beginning, private companies, they’re going to make mistakes and things will go wrong. The problem is they don’t have much margin for error,” McDonald said. “And so it’s sad that after 50 years in spaceflight, that rockets still blow up like this and it's just hoping they’ll be able to recover from this tragedy.”

In recent years, particularly after retiring the space shuttle program, NASA has relied on private companies for certain tasks, including providing supply rockets to the International Space Station. Supporters of commercialization say the move to the private sector has and will save the government space program millions of dollars. 

Accidents do happen, and we've seen catastrophic accidents happen on NASA missions.- Mark Sundahl, Cleveland State University law professor

"With the departure of the shuttle missions, the fact that the United States, who is supposed to be this space superpower, can't launch their astronauts into space, is a really big thing," said Ryan Marciniak, a host and astronomer at the Ontario Science Centre, "The fact that they have to get to Russia to send their astronauts to the ISS, that definitely kicked off all these private companies coming up."

NASA is paying $1.9 billion to Dulles, Virginia-based Orbital Sciences for eight cargo hauls and $1.6 billion to California's SpaceX for 12 shipments. So far, all private space ventures to the space station have involved unmanned flights carrying cargo. But Marciniak said that he believes in a couple years, some of these flights will be taking crew along with cargo.

"At the end of the day it's beneficial for NASA who will be able to direct its funds to missions only NASA can do because they're not profit-bearing missions such as deep space exploration," said Mark Sundahl, Cleveland State University law professor who specializes in space commercialization. 

“I think some skeptics of this move from government resupply missions to the ISS to the private sector may point at this [accident] and say 'I told you so, you can't count on private companies.' But I think that's an absolutely unfair reaction. Accidents do happen, and we've seen catastrophic accidents happen on NASA missions.”

The explosion won't likely have any long-term implications, Sundahl predicted, adding that private industry has been remarkably successful with commercial cargo deliveries, including companies like Orbital, which has already had two successful resupply missions to the space station.

"We will learn from this accident, see what happens and what went wrong and will ensure success in future missions. There will be a silver lining in all this."

Marciniak said he expects the accident will cause a ripple through the industry, forcing companies to second guess their systems and take extra precautions. 

Industry 'growing unbelievably quickly'

"I think it's going to be in people's minds moving forward with the rest of the launches that are going on but I don't think it will slow it down at all. This is an industry that is growing unbelievably quickly."

"Unfortunately when you have setbacks like this it raises questions with folks," said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. "I'm sure there will be elements of Congress that raise questions on whether this is the right path NASA should be going on, using the commercial sector. 

"Personally I'm not concerned," he said.  "I think this is just one small aspect of the whole commercial space industry and these things happens. This is not the first launch failure and it probably won't be the last unfortunately."

With files from The Associated Press


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