Workers completed $15 million in repairs to the launchpad by the end of September, meeting a self-imposed deadline that sets the stage for flights to resume in late spring or early summer of 2016.
NASA has retained its contract with the same private aerospace company to deliver thousands of pounds of supplies to astronauts on the International Space Station. But that company, Orbital Sciences Corp., has changed, merging in February with competitor Alliant Techsystems to become Orbital ATK.
And the engines set to carry Orbital’s rockets heavenward are new, a sharp contrast with the 1960s-era, Soviet-made motors they are replacing.
Change is inevitable, especially in the futuristic world of space travel. For example, Orbital was already planning to find an alternative engine system before the explosion.
But if that stunning blast left a legacy, it might be how it forced scientists, engineers and lawmakers to tackle a big problem and make difficult decisions.
“It’s been a great year,” said Bill Wrobel, the facility’s director for NASA. “There’s not been a lot of reflection. There’s just been a lot of moving forward.”
‘We were very fortunate’
Orbital’s Antares rocket lifted off on schedule at 6:22 p.m. on Oct. 28, 2014.
The flight was the third of eight to be conducted by Orbital under a $1.9 billion contract to haul supplies from Wallops to the space station. A second firm, SpaceX, also is contracted to fly resupply missions. It launches from Cape Canaveral, Florida.
Orbital had been successful during its first two flights, which took place the previous July and August.
The October payload amounted to nearly 5,000 pounds of food for the astronauts and scientific equipment. Among other things, the equipment would have enabled the first space-based observations of meteors entering Earth’s atmosphere and helped determine how blood flows from the brain to the heart in zero-gravity.
Moments after takeoff, though, the rocket seemed to lose acceleration. It hung in the twilight for a fraction of a second before a range safety officer sent a self-destruct command to the vehicle. It complied in spectacular fashion.
No one was hurt. And although the launchpad was badly scarred, the $150 million investment escaped major damage.
“We were very fortunate with the way the rocket came down and fell to the north,” said Dale Nash, executive director of the Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which owns the pad. “It also proved a lot of our blast protection and design of the pad was very robust.”
Ultimately, the state of Virginia, NASA and Orbital agreed to each pay $5 million toward the repairs, and crews worked nearly around the clock over the summer to complete them.
From the beginning, scientists suspected a propulsion problem as the cause of the failure. That would explain Antares’ troubled ascent. But the exact cause remains up in the air.
Orbital officials in public comments have blamed excessive wear in the bearings of one of the two engines. That would likely implicate Aerojet Rocketdyne, which refurbished the motors before selling them to Orbital.
For its part, Aerojet, a division of GenCorp Inc., countered that its investigation suggested debris from the fuel tank got flushed into the main engine, fouling the bearings, according to multiple media reports. That would likely put the responsibility back on Orbital and its assembly team.
Aerojet agreed in September to pay Orbital $50 million to settle the dispute. The two sides also agreed to sever their business relationship.
Officials with Orbital and Aerojet didn’t respond to requests for comment for this story.
Looking for answers
Orbital has vowed to submit an accident report to the Federal Aviation Administration, but that hasn’t happened to date. NASA is conducting its own probe but has no plans to make its findings public.
So there’s no telling which side is right based on video of the doomed flight and evidence made available so far to the public, said Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.
“Hopefully what we’ll get is some basic summary of the report, and hopefully it will be meaningful enough instead of ‘a bad thing happened and we’re not going to tell you,'” he said.
Some background on those motors: They were originally built in the 1960s and ’70s for the Soviet Union’s failed moon program. They sat in plastic bags for decades until Aerojet “Americanized” them, McDowell said. Oribital valued them for their large carrying capacity.
Criticism of Orbital’s decision to use them only grew louder after the explosion.
“You do all the tests you like, but to me I’m a little nervous using hardware that’s that old,” McDowell said.
The most important lesson learned from the launch failure, said John Logsdon, professor emeritus at George Washington University’s Space Police Institute, is: “Don’t use old Russian engines.”
Logsdon, though, cautions against judging Orbital too harshly for the failed flight.
“It’s part of the business of operating in space. You’re operating systems at the edge of performance. You’re harnessing a great amount of energy. Everything has to work,” he said.” “It’s certainly a step back for Orbital and for Wallops. (But) I think it’s kind of a blip rather than a catastrophe.”
The crash was an unfortunate reminder that space travel is inherently risky, Wrobel said.
“I don’t know that it’s preventable. Literally on any one of these big vehicles, you have millions of parts. And they all have to do their job, and sometimes they don’t all do their job,” he said.
Just ask SpaceX. On June 28, eight months to the day after Orbital lost its rocket, the Elon Musk-owned firm watched helplessly as its own space station-bound rocket broke apart two minutes into its flight. The suspected cause: a snapped 2-foot steel strut.
New engines raise questions
In its expedited quest to return to space flight, Orbital returned to the birthplace of its original engines for its new motors.
In January, the Dulles, Va.,-based company signed a $1 billion contract with Russia-based Energomash to acquire up to 60 RD-181 rocket engines. An Orbital spokesman disputed the value of the contract reported by Energomash at the time, saying the contract amount is well below the billion-dollar figure.
Space policy experts say that arrangement is fine for now, praising the line of engines as time-tested workhorses of the aerospace industry.
But if diplomatic ties between the country and the United States continue to deteriorate, several analysts say, it could shut off the supply of engines to the company.
“You still have to question the reliability of the supplier given the state of world politics,” said Roger Handberg, a University of Central Florida political science professor who tracks the space industry.
NASA’s inspector general also has questioned the new engines, citing Orbital’s lack of experience with the motors and the company’s decision to add more cargo to each flight than originally planned.
The new rocket arrived in July at Wallops, and engineers have begun piecing it together on a set of horizontal rails, Wrobel said. The facility aims to conduct a “hot fire test” in late winter and launch the first mission since the explosion “as soon as practical,” perhaps as early as May, he said.
Follow Jeremy Cox on Twitter @Jeremy_Cox
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