01 Dec Orbital and SpaceX to fly again for first time after rockets exploded
When we last left off with the two companies hired to fly cargo to the International Space Station their unmanned rockets had exploded, incinerating thousands of pounds of cargo and leaving the astronauts on the orbiting lab in a bit of a lurch.
Suddenly, the so-called golden age of commercial space flight was more molten orange than gilded. And the widespread belief that the industry was finally, at long last, ready to take flight once again had to yield to questions about whether it really can be entrusted with a mission so difficult that traditionally only governments performed it.
Now the question is: can commercial flight rebound and endure?
Starting as early this week, there should be some answers. The two companies that saw their rockets explode on NASA missions are returning to the launch pad. On Thursday, Dulles-based Orbital ATK–which was Orbital Sciences at the time of the explosion, and has since merged with rocket-maker Alliant Techsystems–is set to fly a cargo resupply mission to the station for the first time since its Antares rocket blew up more than a year ago. Then later this month, SpaceX is slated to launch a commercial satellite from Cape Canaveral in its return to flight.
Both companies say they’ve fixed the problems that led to what they call mishaps, learned from the experience and emerged stronger and safer. But with both having explosions so close to one another, the pressure is on.
NASA also has a lot riding on the launches. Years ago, it decided to retire the space shuttle program and outsource the resupply missions to the commercial sector, so it could focus on deep-space missions.
There is no Plan B.
The failed attempts forced NASA to scramble; the station was ultimately resupplied by the Russian and Japanese. NASA has said that the astronauts were never in danger, and the agency has stood by the companies, saying it is confident with the way they have bounced back and handled the subsequent investigations.
“The mishap was very disappointing and a pretty big blow to the team,” Frank DeMauro, Orbital’s Vice President of Human Space Systems, said in an interview. “The day of the mishap, we licked our wounds and let ourselves grieve a little bit, but got right into the process of figuring out how we were going to return to fly.”