Commercial Rocket Explosion Draws Attention to Space Industry Risk, Oversight

By , and | October 30, 2014

A NASA advisory panel said earlier this year that inadequate funding jeopardized the safety of commercial space cargo shipments, such as the unmanned Orbital Sciences Corp. mission that exploded this week over Virginia.

In its annual report released in January, the agency’s Aerospace Safety Advisory Panel warned about funding shortfalls in programs that use commercial companies to transport crew and cargo to low-orbit space.

“Insufficient funding results in either extended schedule or lower performance,” according to the 2013 annual report to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration. The panel said the result could be “higher failure risk through improper or insufficient testing.”

A commercial space industry has emerged in the U.S. after budget cuts prompted NASA to retire the space shuttle in 2011. The agency now relies on Orbital and Elon Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies Corp. to ferry supplies to the International Space Station.

Space Station Supply Rocket That Exploded Insured for $50 Million

Last month, the agency for the first time handed responsibility for manned spaceflight to private contractors, awarding Boeing and SpaceX as much as $6.8 billion in contracts to ferry astronauts to the space station.

The explosion on Oct. 28 of a $200 million Antares rocket and spacecraft occurred seconds after launch at the Wallops Flight Facility on Virginia’s eastern shore. No one was injured. NASA and Orbital said they remain committed to the program, though Orbital Chief Executive Officer David Thompson said it would delay its next launch, scheduled for April. He said the company was still investigating the cause.

‘Unproven Vehicles’

The NASA panel’s report said the agency should clarify what, if any, limits to the cargo program “are appropriate for the relatively unproven vehicles and the limited insight/oversight posture currently in place.”

NASA requested $850 million for fiscal year 2012 for contract management and oversight of the commercial operations, according to the advisory panel’s report. Congress appropriated $397 million, raising the risk of failure, according to the report.

Appropriations have increased since, though fell short of NASA’s request again in 2013. The agency sought $830 million and received $525 million. That figure is only for the manned portion of the program because the cargo missions were shifted to the International Space Station budget in 2013, according to the Congressional Research Service. Figures for the cargo portion of the space station budget were not immediately available.

Significant Risk

“Launches are never routine and always carry significant risk,” Senator Richard Shelby of Alabama, who is the top Republican on the Senate Appropriations Committee and its subcommittee that appropriates NASA’s funding, said in an e- mailed statement. “This was an unfortunate event that will challenge NASA to maintain its schedule for resupplying the ISS.”

NASA didn’t respond to questions about its budget. Phil Larson, senior White House adviser for space policy, said the explosion “was a reminder that space exploration is a difficult endeavor.”

The nation is “opening up a new commercial space market, with U.S. companies leading the way,” he said.

“The basic philosophy of reduced government oversight will almost certainly be called into question after this incident,” John Logsdon, a professor emeritus at George Washington University and founder of its Space Policy Institute, said in an interview.

Grand Ambitions

While it’s unclear what caused the failure, NASA has long suffered from a lack of funding for the grand ambitions of space travel, said Logsdon, who was a member of the team that investigated the 2003 accident that destroyed the Space Shuttle Columbia.

“The agency is trying to put a 20-pound program in a 10- pound bag,” he said.

The NASA advisory panel, created in 1969 to evaluate and improve the safety of NASA’s programs, is made up of government employees and aviation industry experts appointed by the NASA administrator.

Its chairman, retired Navy Vice Admiral Joseph Dyer, said he looks forward to the agency and Orbital “carrying out the work to understand what went wrong, making changes as required and expeditiously continuing the program.”

The explosion is “part of maturing a system and balancing risk and reward,” Dyer said in an e-mail. “This is why NASA has limited the commercial cargo manifest to non-critical packages.”

Columbia Accident

Budget pressures at NASA played a role in the 2003 accident involving Columbia, which burned up as it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere because part of its heat shield was damaged during launch. All seven crew members died.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board concluded that an underlying cause was budget cuts at NASA. The reductions in agency funding stemmed from an effort in the late 1990s to balance the U.S. budget.

Rather than kill major programs, the agency attempted to become more efficient, the review found. The budget issues “particularly affected the human space flight enterprise,” the group’s final report said. The U.S. government took funds from the shuttle program to fund foreign policy programs in Russia to halt the proliferation of nuclear weapons, for example.

Those cuts led to workforce reductions and a decrease in the layers of safety, the report concluded.

New Scrutiny

The Orbital explosion may result in new scrutiny of NASA’s effort to use private companies to ferry astronauts into space, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Washington-based Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

“You are dealing with the government and there is always that element,” Stallmer said in an interview. “I am sure there will be someone in Congress who calls for a closer look at this program.”

Even so, the failure shouldn’t alter timelines for the agency’s use of private vendors to transport crews, he said.

“These things happen,” Stallmer said. “I hate to sound callous, but they do happen. You figure out what happened, you make adjustments and you move forward.”

While NASA would benefit from a larger budget, that probably wasn’t a factor in the Orbital failure, he said.

“I think there is tremendous oversight of these launches,” he said. “It’s speculative for me to say, but I don’t think it was a lack of oversight on NASA’s behalf or a lack of funding.”

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