Editorial: Shooting for stars needs more oversight

November4cartoonOn Sept. 12, 1962, President John F. Kennedy was only a few hours south of Baylor when he said, “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard …” The national excitement around the moon race united and inspired a generation in a way unique to U.S. history. Now the U.S. is starting the next exciting chapter in space exploration, commercial space programs. Just as NASA’s road to success was paved with failure, setbacks and tragedies, it appears private space companies may be in for a similar journey.

Last Tuesday an Antares rocket exploded over a launch pad at the spaceport in Wallops Island, Va., just 15 seconds after takeoff. Orbital Sciences provided the rocket to NASA that carried a Cygnus supply spacecraft meant to transport supplies to the International Space Station. The rocket and spacecraft were unmanned and thankfully nobody was hurt. However, there was plenty of damage to the facility, equipment and reputation of commercial space companies.

More than ever, Americans are questioning the decision to take shuttle and rocket programs from NASA and contract them to the private sector. Commercial space companies are concerned with profits and are not accountable to taxpayers. If NASA isn’t given more regulatory power over the commercial space industry, the U.S. could be seeing more stories like this sooner than later.

Investigators are still assessing the cost of the damage from the failed launch, but initial estimates are in the hundreds of millions between the rocket, its cargo, damage to the spaceport and the environmental cleanup. Orbital Sciences also received a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to execute eight resupply missions to the International Space Station. The Tuesday launch was only the third of the eight missions, and further missions are in jeopardy.

Orbital Sciences used two refurbished NK-33 engines in the Antares rocket that were made for the Soviet Union’s moon program in the 1960s. The official cause of the failure is still unknown, but many are looking at the NK-33 engines as the likely culprits.

The Soviet Union abandoned the NK-33 engines after multiple failures. The remaining engines were either used in a few smaller Russian rockets or mothballed and put in storage. In the mid-1990s, U.S.-owned GenCorp Inc’s AeroJet Rocketdyne division bought 40 NK-33s for about $1 million apiece, then refurbished and sold them as AJ-26s. Rockets that use AJ-26 engines have continued to experience catastrophic failures, even as recent as May 2014.

The failure of these engines prompted Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, to mock Orbital Sciences’ rocket in a 2012 interview with Wired Magazine saying, “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 60s. I don’t mean their design is from the 60s; I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the 60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.”

Orbital Sciences is not the lone commercial space company with recent catastrophic failures. On Friday a Virgin Galactic spaceship exploded midflight over the Mojave Desert in California. The explosion killed test pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injured another pilot, Peter Siebold. These recent failures are drawing questions from critics who wonder if the decision to cut NASA’s shuttle program, in favor of commercial shuttle programs, was the correct decision.

Sending rockets to space is a dangerous task no matter who attempts it. However, if investigators conclude that the AJ-26 engines are to blame for the Orbital Sciences failure, commercial space travel may not survive the blow.

Businesses care about profit. The entire point of business is to make money. It is only natural for good businessmen to try and buy the least expensive equipment that will still get the job done. However, when it comes to rocket science, this may not be the best approach. A company’s bottom line should be the least important factor when the stakes are this high. Government programs have the luxury of worrying less about profit, and more about results. This makes government agencies uniquely suited  to carry out important and dangerous tasks like space travel.

However, not all commercial space companies are bad or should be closed. There are other commercial companies with great track records of responsibility and safety. Musk’s SpaceX is one example of a commercial space company trying to do things right. That is great for Musk and his company, but Americans can’t hedge their safety and the success of their space programs on a gamble that the CEO of a company will do the moral thing and spend extra money to ensure safety and success.

So completely outlawing commercial space companies is not the answer, and neither is the way they currently operate. The solution is to charge NASA with a greater regulatory role for these companies. NASA already works very close with all commercial space companies and has some regulation over their operations, but they need more.

Also, Orbital Sciences had very few options when they were looking to buy rocket engines. The cost of developing a new rocket engine is estimated around $200 million. With the decrease in NASA funding and public interest in space programs, NASA is years away from developing a new, U.S.-made rocket engine. Even the U.S. Air Force uses Russian engines in its Atlas V rockets. If Congress provided NASA with the proper funding to accelerate the development of a new engine, it could be shared with private U.S. space companies to help avoid future catastrophes.

Private industry is capable of amazing ingenuity and progress, but sometimes it needs a little government guidance and regulation to help ensure public safety and success. Hopefully NASA will receive an increased regulatory role and increased funding to develop a new rocket engine so that U.S. commercial space programs can survive.