08 March, 2011

Loss of NASA Glory climate satellite

Last week NASA's Glory atmospheric observation satellite was lost in a launch incident. So what does this mean for commercial space flight? Probably not much.

Lots of hopes had been pinned to the ~$400 million spacecraft that ended up in the Pacific ocean after the protective shroud encapsulating it failed to open and separate.

A very similar accident happened almost a year to the day of this loss with another research satellite. Both these losses were attributed to shroud/fairing separation system failures on Orbital Sciences' Taurus XL family of multi-stage boosters.

And if i recall correctly, about a decade ago, a commercial earth observation satellite experienced a similar ignominious and soggy fate when the fairing of its Lockheed Martin Athena booster failed to jettison correctly. LM's Athena seems to have gone dormant from that point.

So what do we think happened and what does this say about the future of commercial space flight?

For the first question, the facts are still being collected, but what is known is that the two piece protective shroud did not open like a clamshell and separate from the upper stage as designed. The extra mass caused the doomed spacecraft to miss orbit. What I find interesting is that the separation mechanism was redesigned in response to last year's failure.  The previous system relied on a hot-gas system for actuation. The one lost last week swapped this out for a stored pressurized nitrogen cold gas actuation scheme precisely because it was deemed to be more reliable.

So, was  there a systems engineering or other process failure induced by a rush to implement and roll out the new system, or was it just "bad luck"? I don't know.

Some things we do know, however: Orbital's Taurus XL track record is not looking good right now with ~$700M worth of spacecraft sitting on the seabed. This is certain to be a consideration in setting insurance costs for any subsequent commercial launches -- and not necessarily just for Orbital's vehicles. NASA, like the rest of the US government, "self-ensures" their launches, so those multi-hundreds of millions just disappear from the treasury's books.

Orbital's Taurus is at the heart of the planned commercial orbital transportation services (COTS) planned to ferry supplies to the ISS, so there will most certainly be pressure to get this issue resolved convincingly.

On a larger stage, I hope we can learn a useful lesson for commercial space. First, commercial space flight is not new; communications satellites have been privately owned and operated since the 1960's. What will be new is commercial human space flight. Corporations and consortiums, whether bolstered by insurance or not, thik they understand and can accept the financial risks of launching a payload into space and they have a reasonable expectation of turning a profit from doing so.

Absorbing or insulating against that sort of technical performance risk is no longer a role that only government can fulfill. We're beyond the days of German scientists furiously attempting V2 launches and losing something like 200 before they got one right (talk about pressure; their leaders never seemed to be such understanding guys). Elon Musk knows that even he's not wealthy enough to sustain that sort of cost of doing business, but precisely because of the government efforts that came before, he also knows he doesn't have to.

What is new, and a totally different ball game, is commercial human spaceflight. The public doesn't care if a communication satellite plummets from the sky with the possible exception of it flattening their home. If folks die, people will care about that. And that becomes a factor in the cost-benefit ratio calculation that is a bit fuzzy. We can have ten fairing separation failures in a row, and the average "man on the street" is not going to be up in arms. Lose a person in a commercial space accident however, you can expect to have a lot of new and unwanted attention.

So my question is: have we arrived at the point where the government can step aside and turn the keys to LEO flight to commercial entities? Will commercial practices, quality control, risk management, and other disciplines be a suitable match for this brave new world?

Left unasked, at least for now, is: where is the business model under which we all start making copious buckets of money.



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