A Soyuz spacecraft and a Progress cargo ship are pictured docked with the ISS as a spectacular aurora lights up over the Earth. Image credit: NASA

Oct 29, 2014 Disaster reminds us we can never feel complacent about flying into space

Sen—It may have been with a sense of schadenfreude that Russia’s space chiefs watched their latest Progress cargo ship head for the International Space Station today.

Its textbook launch from Kazakhstan came as their American partners in the ISS were still trying to take in the disastrous failure of an Antares rocket that had exploded just hours earlier.

And while Orbital Sciences’ Cygnus cargo craft lay scattered as debris over its wrecked launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia, Russia’s own supply ship was once again proving its capabilities as a space workhorse.

Russia and the US co-operate closely to ensure the space station runs well, keeping its international crew safe. But the natural sense of rivalry between the two nations has only been heightened by the West’s sanctions imposed on Russia because of political events in the Ukraine.

The Antares disaster also served to highlight the heavy reliance that NASA has placed on the Russians in supporting manned spaceflight. The US is still in the early stages of transferring the business of ferrying supplies, let alone astronauts, to commercial enterprise.

More than three years after the final spaceflight of a Space Shuttle, in July 2011, NASA faces criticism that it retired its own space fleet prematurely when it had nothing with which to replace it. 

It is worth remembering that NASA’s partners and commercial rivals Orbital Sciences and SpaceX both successfully sent a number of proving flights to the ISS before the new devastating setback for Antares. 

But NASA is still developing its own new Space Launch System, including a capsule called Orion, which will ferry astronauts from US soil again into orbit and beyond. Orion’s first unmanned test flight is due in December, and it is not likely to carry crews until early in the next decade.

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A Cygnus cargo ship approaches the ISS on an earlier successful mission by Orbital Sciences in July. Image credit: Alexander Gerst/ESA/NASA

Of course spaceflight is never routine and it is not so long ago that the Russians had problems of their own. In August 2011, a Progress M-12M cargo ship plunged to Earth in eastern Russia after a rocket engine shut down too soon and its third stage failed to separate. 

Then in July, 2013, a Russian Proton-M rocket with three satellites aboard exploded in a huge fireball after veering off course seconds after launch from Baikonur.

It is too early to say what caused the Antares rocket to fail so spectacularly, though video appears to show an explosion at the base of the first stage. 

Ironically, although Orbital Sciences is an American company, it is using former Soviet technology in Antares. The rocket’s first stage was built by Yuzhnoe, a Ukrainian company, and employs refurbished Russian NK-33 engines that were built way back in the Sixties and Seventies.

Following Tuesday’s disaster for Antares, Elon Musk, head of commercial rival SpaceX, tweeted: “Sorry to hear about the @OrbitalSciences launch. Hope they recover soon.” But just two years ago, in an interview with Wired, Musk poured scorn on Orbital’s reliance on Russian technology. 

He said then: “One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the Sixties.”

Orbital is determined to find out just what went wrong and to recover from what they see as a temporary setback. And while they and NASA try to determine the cause, it is a reminder that our attempts to slip the surly bonds of Earth continue to carry significant risk.