5 Reasons Rocket Launches Are Still a Risky Venture

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A routine supply mission to the International Space Station launched April 28 from Russia’s Baikonur Cosmodrome. Shortly after launch, flight engineers announced it failed to reach the proper orbit to approach the ISS and had instead developed an unstable spin. Progress M-27M crashed into the South Pacific 10 days later. Failures in spaceflight are nothing new; certainly, rockets aren’t blowing up weekly as they did in the early days of the Space Age more than a half a century ago. Still, failures such as Progress and the dramatic explosion last October of an Antares rocket — also carrying a resupply vehicle headed to the ISS — at Wallops Island, Virginia, both quickly became high-profile news events. Here are just a few reasons spaceflight still remains a risky business.

 

5. We Still Rely on Controlled Explosions to Lift Spacecraft

The United States' first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit resulted in this massive launchpad explosion in December 1957 at Cape Canaveral. Credit: NASA

The United States’ first attempt to launch a satellite into orbit resulted in this massive launchpad explosion in December 1957 at Cape Canaveral. Credit: NASA

The toughest part of any space mission is simply dealing with Earth’s gravity. As with aircraft, landing and taking off are the riskiest parts of any flight. We lost two spacecraft during the Space Shuttle program, one (Challenger in 1986) during liftoff, and another (Columbia in 2003) during reentry. Currently, placing a payload on top of a stack of chemical explosives is the only way to carry large loads into space. And make no mistake — these are controlled explosions of enormous force, using thousands of gallons of liquid hydrogen and liquid oxygen per second.

But there are intriguing alternatives. One hybrid approach already in use is to deploy a rocket from the belly of a high-altitude aircraft. The Pegasus XL rocket does just that, and there are ideas to use high-altitude balloons or even jet fighters to launch satellites. Another idea is to use a “space gun” or high-velocity cannon to accelerate payloads into space. This idea can be traced back to Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon. Finally, a much more exotic idea calls for doing away with launching rockets all together and using a space elevator to hoist payloads up to geosynchronous orbit.

 

4. Even a Minor Malfunction Can Lead to Disaster

The fiery crash of a Proton-M rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan in 2013 became a trending topic on social media.

The fiery crash of a Proton-M rocket just seconds after liftoff in Kazakhstan in 2013 lit up social media.

The Space Shuttle was one of the most complex machines ever built and had 2.5 million moving parts, most of which had to work absolutely perfectly. A simple failure of a rubber O-ring in a solid rocket booster caused the 1986 Challenger disaster. Astronauts and engineers practice and create procedures for every conceivable contingency, although some emergencies — such as Apollo 13 — can send them scrambling. Ironically, some of the most dramatic rocket explosions through the years during NASA launches were actually self-destructs commanded remotely by the range officer to avoid losing control of a failing rocket. The Russians have no such capability, and can only attempt to steer a wayward rocket toward an unpopulated area, as occurred during a failed 2013 Proton rocket launch. Still, Russian launch failures are so common a small cottage industry for salvaging rocket debris for precious metals has actually sprouted up in Kazakhstan and Siberia downrange of Russian launch sites.

 

3. More Launches Leads to Perception of More Failures

A successful Minotaur rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, in 2013. The number of launches last year reached a two-decade high. © Stephen Nakatani

A successful Minotaur rocket launch from Wallops Island, Virginia, in 2013. The number of launches last year reached a two-decade high. © Stephen Nakatani

The surest way for a routine commercial satellite launch to become major news is to end in a dramatic fireball over the launch pad. In 2014 there were 92 orbital rocket launches worldwide — the most since 1994 — with four failures. And although the numbers of launches per year is on the rise, the number of failures per year has held steady at three to six since 2000. There always has been, and always will be, an element of risk in leaving Earth’s orbit. Sometimes that risk is greater than we would like to admit. Estimates for a failure early in the Space Shuttle program were said to be anywhere from 1-in-100 to 1-in-100,000. As it turned out, a NASA study a few years ago determined the actual rate of failure in the shuttle program should have been projected at 1-in-10.

Much of the false perception that more disasters are occurring comes from the modern transparency of spaceflight. Nearly every launch is now broadcast live via the Internet, and footage of a launch failure during even a low-profile satellite launch can go viral in minutes. It’s amazing to think, just a few decades ago, nearly everything the Russians did in space was carried out in secret … now we’re afforded live in-capsule views during liftoff. Only military launches by states such as Israel, Iran and North Korea are hidden from public view, although backyard satellite spotters are always on the prowl for these payloads as well.

 

2. Private Space Flight Companies Are Still in Learning Stages

The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft nears the International Space Station on a resupply mission in April 2015. SpaceX and other private space companies are changing the nature of spaceflight. Credit: NASA

The SpaceX Dragon cargo spacecraft nears the International Space Station on a resupply mission in April 2015. SpaceX and other private companies are changing the nature of spaceflight. Credit: NASA

Private corporations such as SpaceX and Blue Origins have joined the space race in recent years. SpaceX has already been tremendously successful, hoisting payloads to the ISS and geosynchronous orbit. SpaceX recently tested its escape system for its crewed Dragon capsule, and hopes to test its Falcon Heavy launch vehicle later in 2015. The era of private spaceflight may well push the number of launches annually into the triple digits. Certainly, private companies have decades of military and government experience in spaceflight to build on. But can corporations always do it better? In the case of scientific missions with little profit return, there may be negligible financial incentive for private corporations. Also, companies such as Virgin Galactic and SpaceX have yet to experience their own “Challenger moment” and demonstrate they can weather and learn from expected losses.

 

1. ‘Space is Hard’

The Antares rocket that exploded in October 2014 raised plenty of questions. © Steve Jurvetson

The Antares rocket that exploded in October 2014 raised plenty of questions. © Steve Jurvetson

After the failure of Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket in October 2014, NASA official William Gerstenmaier told reporters, “Launch is a really tough business. When we look at all these events that occur flawlessly and go well, we need to recognize how difficult and demanding this business really is.” Sometimes, despite the best efforts of teams of engineers, studious inspections, etc., accidents will happen. It’s not always easy to determine what goes wrong when a launch fails. Orbital Sciences (now known as Orbital ATK) launched an investigation into the Antares failure right after the explosion; almost six months later, the company said that the disaster had been caused by worn bearings in a turbo pump in one of the first-stage engines. Yet the engine supplier, Aerojet Rocketdyne, immediately responded that, while the bearings had failed, “foreign object debris” in the engine had likely caused the failure. And a company spokesperson said that debris came from a fuel tank, which they said should have been inspected by Orbital Sciences prior to the launch. Expect more such disagreements in the future after launch disasters, as private corporations try to affix blame for the loss of spacecraft and payloads running in the hundreds of millions of dollars.

As with any endeavor of exploration, space travel will, at least in the near term, remain difficult. A false argument against space travel is often presented asking why we’re going into space when there are problems here on Earth, as if we’re only waiting for the end of the space program to solve poverty, end war, cure cancer, etc. It’s important to remember not only has space provided an enormous return on investment — GPS, digital camera technology, and weather forecasting are a few prominent examples —but all the money spent sending missions to Mars or to the outer solar system is spent right here on Earth.

Written by

David Dickinson is a backyard astronomer, science educator and retired military veteran. He lives in Hudson, Fla., with his wife, Myscha, and their dog, Maggie. He blogs about astronomy, science and science fiction at www.astroguyz.com.