For the third time in less than a year, a rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station was unable to complete its mission, this time a SpaceX Falcon rocket failing minutes after liftoff. In May, Russia’s Progress 59 cargo craft spun out of control and eventually burned up in the earth’s atmosphere. Last October, an Orbital Science Antares rocket failed just after launch. We are all thankful no lives were lost and the ISS astronauts’ supplies have not reached dangerously low levels. Still, these failures must be raising stress levels for everyone in the international space community.
As those of use in the community know, space exploration is hard, and getting a spacecraft off the ground and into space in one piece is an astounding feat requiring thousands of hours of preparation and the ingenuity and work from hundreds of people. Every failure is exhaustively investigated and every assumption about what might have gone wrong fully explored. Still, there are so many other “What Ifs” that remain.
“There’s really no commonality across those three events,” NASA’s Associate Administrator William H. Gerstenmaier told Forbes, because space “is a very demanding environment.” SpaceX’s founder Elon Musk tweeted that “an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank” caused the failure, but that upon thorough analysis, more information would be forthcoming. SpaceX president and COO Gwynne Shotwell agreed, but added during the midday press conference that it is too early to know the exact cause. They all understand the importance of rigorously evaluating every uncompleted mission to apprehend and correct system failures.
In 2012, a Wired magazine article made much of the difference between SpaceX’s cutting-edge technology, comparing it to competitors’ use of “legacy components” and “Russian rocket engines that were made in the ‘60s.” Such characterizations may lead many to believe that new technology is always the best technology. Whether or not that is true, it often has very little to do with why missions fail. Granted, SpaceX had six successful mission to the ISS before today’s failure. But as the events since last October have demonstrated, a single breakdown may erase many years of success. Today’s failure proves that new components can be just as fallible as older technologies.
These events serve to remind us of the challenges we face in space’s unforgiving environment to provide safe commercial spaceflight. They should not be about pitting competitor against competitor to determine who has the highest success rate. They are not about new technology versus old technology or cutting-edge design versus proven workhorses. And they are certainly not about U.S or Russian supremacy. They are about a community of humans who endeavor to learn and share in exploring and closing the “What if” gap of knowledge.
What we should learn from today is that we can’t get complaisant. Nor can we let this string of “failures” halt the progress we have made toward sustained manned spaceflight. The principles of mission assurance become more important than ever. Keep testing. Keep investigating every failed launch. Check once, check again, and then one more time. Reduce as thoroughly as possible the chance for human error by ensuring every belly button involved has the information, the procedure and the authority to speak up when he or she knows something is wrong. Embrace change when needed.
While I am disappointed by these failures, I am also encouraged when we use them to push the envelope of our knowledge about space exploration further and come even closer to our vision of commercial human spaceflight and the continued endeavor of human space exploration.
Godspeed SpaceX. Godspeed Orbital Sciences. Godspeed Roscosmos. And Godspeed NASA.