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Will rocket’s ‘catastrophic failure’ set back the private space industry?

Posted at 2:45 PM, Oct 29, 2014

Orbital Sciences, which built the Antares rocket that exploded in a massive fireball Tuesday, described the explosion as a "catastrophic failure." It certainly looked like it. Will this failure also be a setback for the burgeoning private space industry?

The unmanned rocket was carrying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft loaded with more than 5,000 pounds of equipment for the International Space Station, a floating laboratory that travels at 17,240 miles per hour. It blew up at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia seconds after launch.

Since NASA's space shuttle program was canceled in 2011, the private sector has ferried cargo to the station. Orbital Sciences is one of two private companies hired by NASA to run such missions, and the other is Elon Musk's SpaceX. The botched mission was to be Orbital Sciences' third of eight as part of a $1.9 billion contract with NASA. SpaceX is set to send its fifth mission to the station in December.

While the private sector is not new to such accidents, like the SpaceX test mission that exploded in August, the Antares blast marks the first such NASA-contracted accident since the agency turned to the private sector to ferry space station cargo.

NASA-contracted space travel is highly coveted because of the value of the associated contracts, which are in the billions of dollars, leading to a new incarnation of the space race and what many refer to as the privatization of space.

The failed launch is an inferno for Orbital Sciences, and perhaps the public's perception of the private sector's ability to manage these complicated missions will be affected, but it is nothing more than a blip for the aerospace industry. As Musk said in a tweet after the August SpaceX explosion: "rockets are tricky ..." Furthermore, NASA recently awarded contracts for manned missions to the station worth $6.8 billion to both SpaceX and Boeing, contracts that are not in jeopardy as a result of this explosion.

And about that public perception of the private sector: NASA has always relied on the private industry to help accomplish its space exploration goals. Companies like Boeing and Lockheed have been contracted to design and build every vehicle that has carried astronauts since the start of the space program. In fact, Boeing was the main contractor for building the International Space Station.

So NASA has always relied on private industry, a need that is only increasing as the agency's budget becomes stretched even further and it turns to private enterprise to take on one of the program's crown jewels: manned space flights. And some say the lack of bureaucracy in the private sector will bring financial savings, speed of innovation and efficiency.

While the broader industry will remain largely unaffected by Tuesday's accident, no one wins when a rocket explodes. Tweets of condolences to Orbital Sciences from industry insiders flooded social media after the incident. They may be competitors, but they all understand just how complicated these missions are. No one wants to go down in flames.