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Commercial space accidents not expected to slow NASA

Commercial space accidents not expected to slow NASA

The two recent explosions involving commercial spacecraft are unlikely to daunt NASA's use of private companies.

The two recent explosions involving commercial spacecraft are unlikely to deter NASA's used of private companies for future space exploration.

The fiery explosion of an Orbital Sciences rocket and the spacecraft it was carrying was followed days later by the deadly crash of a Virgin Galactic rocket ship late last week. The accidents raised questions about the readiness of the fledgling commercial space industry.

But those following the space industry say the accidents, which were unrelated, shouldn't put an added burden on NASA, which is contracting with commercial space flight companies. However, it may open an opportunity for other commercial players.

"I think this is going to raise fears about commercial space flight, but I think they are unjustified," said Howard McCurdy, a professor at American University who specializes in space policy and history. "There's a reason NASA has more than one commercial partner. I think there's a lot of redundancy or slack in the system. It's set up to handle these kinds of issues. You want everything to be perfect but it never is. Since it never is, the goal is to set up a system that can recover. That's what NASA has done."

On Oct. 29, an Orbital Sciences Cygnus spacecraft, riding aboard an Antares rocket, exploded moments after liftoff. The unmanned spacecraft had earlier been successfully used for two cargo resupply mission launches to the International Space Station.

No one was injured in the accident. The rocket and spacecraft cost more than $200 million. The Cygnus was carrying more than 5,000 pounds of supplies and scientific equipment. NASA had contracted with Orbital Sciences for eight missions.

Then on Oct. 31, the Virgin Galactic rocket ship, designed for space tourism, broke apart miles above the ground. One pilot was killed and a second was seriously injured.

The space agency is not without a means of ferrying supplies to the orbiting station, since it also has contracted with SpaceX to fly 12 resupply missions. The company has flown four successful missions and its next one is scheduled for December.

The two high-profile accidents raised speculation that commercial space flight was moving too fast and possibly too recklessly.

Scott Hubbard, an aeronautics and astronautics professor at Stanford University and former director of NASA's Ames Research Center, said the two accidents need to be looked at separately and can't be held against NASA.

"There is a commercial space community made up of many different industries, and NASA's commercial cargo and crew program has nothing to do with the commercial tourism industry," Hubbard said. "I view these two things happening as pure coincidence. I didn't attach any significance other than synchronicity to that... You need to disentangle or reduce the perception that the commercial space [industry] is all one monolith and going to hell in a hand basket."

Hubbard and McCurdy both noted that the Orbital Sciences accident, which is the only one to affect NASA, only hurts the company itself since NASA contracted with a second commercial partner, SpaceX.

McCurdy, who wrote the book Space and the American Imagination, said it may take Orbital Sciences as much as a year to piece together what caused the rocket failure. In that time, the company may not be able to fly any new missions.

That would be a big opportunity for SpaceX to step up and possibly increase the number of its contracted missions with NASA. It's also possible that if Orbital Sciences falls too far behind, NASA may look for a third commercial partner for resupply missions.

The space agency may wait a year for Orbital Sciences, though likely not much longer, according to McCurdy.

"The Antares accident will raise questions over whether more government oversight might have lessened the risk, but there is no question that privately provided services to NASA for carrying out government missions will continue," said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "By contrast, the debate over the ethics of space tourism -- is it worth the risk -- will intensify. But people who try to climb Everest sometimes die and that does not stop the attempts."

Both Hubbard and Logsdon served on the board that investigated the deadly Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003.

The experts said the Orbital Sciences accident is not expected to slow NASA's use of commercial spacecraft to ferry supplies to the space station. It's also unlikely that it will delay NASA's goal of launching spacecraft carrying astronauts from U.S. soil by 2017.

NASA partnered with SpaceX and Boeing Co. to build spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station, freeing the U.S. from depending on Russia to carry its astronauts. The space agency has not launched astronauts since the space shuttles were retired in 2011.

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