Disaster strikes two space missions

Disaster strikes two space missions

Derek Richardson

Ad astra per aspera. It means “to the stars through difficulty.” Not only is that the motto for Kansas, it is the motto for anybody pushing the limits of frontiers. In the last week of October 2014, that phrase hit home to the spaceflight community. Two accidents, both tragedies in their own right, highlight the very real dangers of spaceflight.

On Oct. 28, 2014 at 6:22 EDT, Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares rocket carrying the unmanned Cygnus cargo ship bound for the International Space Station suffered an anomaly seconds after launch in Virginia. It then fell back down to the pad in a spectacular fashion unseen in the United States in nearly two decades.

Just three days later on the morning of Oct. 31, Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo airplane took off from the Mojave Spaceport in California carrying with it SpaceShipTwo, a vehicle in testing designed to carry passengers into space on a suborbital trajectory. Seconds after detaching from WhiteKnightTwo, and firing its new engine, SpaceShipTwo broke apart going around the speed of sound. There were two pilots onboard, only one survived.

Launching to space is difficult. It is literally an explosion propelling a vehicle to speeds many times faster than the fastest bullets on earth. It is one of the most unforgiving occupations. If something goes wrong, it goes wrong fast, and usually with a very big boom.

Failures like these are very emotional for all those involved and to those who witness them, be it in person or cyberspace.

Elliot Severn, a photographer for SpaceFlight Insider, was at the Antares viewing site just under two miles from the launch pad. He also had remote cameras positioned only a couple hundred feet from the rocket. He said the launch looked surprisingly bright, and assumed that was because it was the first night launch of Antares.

“Then suddenly, the flame turned yellow-orange and got far too bright,” Severn said, “That was the moment we knew something had gone catastrophically wrong.”

In video shot by Severn and others watching in person, you hear the panic in the voices. On one video, a person can be heard warning everybody that it was going to be loud. At two miles away, it would be about nine seconds before the sound reached the onlookers.

“Your could see the shock wave ripple through the air,” Severn said, “debris leaving streaks of smoke behind them.”

When the shock wave finally hit, you could hear people yelling to get back to their buses. Severn estimated the fireball to be about a thousand feet wide, based on size of the water tower next to the pad.

“As it fell, I was thinking fall left! Fall left!” said Severn, hoping that the rocket would avoid destroying his cameras.

With the failure of the Antares rocket came the loss of not only the Cygnus cargo ship, but the nearly five thousands pounds of food, supplies and experiments. Among those were over a dozen student experiments, including those from students at St. Peters Catholic School in Kansas City.

Also on the rocket was a payload from an asteroid mining company named Planetary Resources. That payload was the Arkyd 3 spacecraft, a small platform that was designed to test the avionics and control system of their future Arkyd 100 series telescopes. Those telescopes would be used to detect small asteroids for potential mining. Other uses of the future telescopes would be more down to earth, with possible applications for cheap orbital remote sensing.

“While we are saddened about the unfortunate consequences of this launch failure,” Planetary Resources said in a press release, “We are already hard at work developing our next test vehicle.”

That sentiment was felt by all with direct connections to this launch. Even the students who had experiments are eager to build again and fly on a future flight.

Just three days later, the loss of SpaceShipTwo and death of test pilot Michael Alsbury hit the space community very hard. The flight, though not live streamed, was followed by hundreds, if not thousands on twitter.

Space reporters, such as Doug Messier of Parabolic Arc, were at hand to photograph the flight, which was supposed to be a test of the engine lasting up to about 20 seconds. He and many others tweeted progress of the flight as it unfolded.

“SS2 blew up. Came down in pieces. At one of the debris sites,” tweeted messier to thousands of followers, which was retweeted hundreds of times. Shockingly he followed up with, “At one of crash sites. Body still in seat.”

Then the news helicopters flew in, and everybody across the country could see the devastation.

“Tough, tough week for the space family. Antares was like a hard kick in the nuts, SpaceShipTwo is more a knife through the heart,” commented one person on twitter.

Initial fears pointed to the new engine. Was it thoroughly tested on the ground before being flown?

Interestingly, preliminary investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board or NTSB showed that the “feathered reentry system,” in which the wings on the craft rotate upward to provide a shuttlecock effect on its way back into the atmosphere, was prematurely engaged. This premature rotation of the wings while transitioning the sound barrier would have ripped the spacecraft apart. The NTSB notes that the premature feathering is a statement of fact, not necessarily a cause.

The pilot that perished in the crash was Michael Alsbury. He is survived by his wife and two young kids. There is currently a Memorial fundraiser on gofundme.com for his family with a goal of raising at least $50,000. In less than a day, it reached nearly three quarters of that goal with hundreds of condolences posted.

“Space is hard – but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together,” tweeted Richard Branson, billionaire owner of the Virgin Group, as he was flying to be with the team.

“Loss of life made the Virgin Galactic accident much more devastating [than Antares],” said Severn, stating that the future of that company will really depend of the outcome of the investigation, “it could be a simple design flaw in SpaceShipTwo, or something much deeper.”

Severn points out that space tourism will carry on whether or not Virgin can overcome this incident.

A plaque placed at the Mojave Spaceport in 2006 quoting Theodore Roosevelt sums up the attitude of people who push frontiers, and why they will continue to press the limits of what humanity can do.

“Far better it is to dare mighty things…even though checkered by failure, than to rank with those timid spirits who neither enjoy nor suffer much because they live in the gray twilight that knows not victory nor defeat”

Ad astra per aspera.