This has been a bad week for the commercial space industry. First on Tuesday was the Orbital Science built Antares rocket explosion when launched at the NASA Wallops Island facility in Virginia. Then on Friday, the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo crash in the Mojave Desert. Built by Scaled Composites, owned by Burt Rutan, the space plane was to be the first of several for Richard Branson and his space tourism company, Virgin Galactic. What was to be the fourth powered test flight came to a deadly end when an ′anomaly′ occurred. SpaceShipTwo was first carried to an altitude of about 50,000 feet by the special transport airplane, WhiteKnight, after taking off from the Mojave Air and Space Port northeast of Los Angeles. Once at altitude, the spaceplane was released and three seconds later, fired its rocket motor. Moments later, it appears that the motor exploded. One pilot was killed, the other ejected but was still seriously injured.
SpaceShipTwo has made some 54 test flights so far, but only three previous ones were powered. On this fourth powered test flight, a new rocket motor was being tested. The original SpaceShipOne built by Scaled Composites used a hybrid motor consisting of an solid-fuel motor made from a compound including rubber and epoxy. This was oxidized using hydrogen peroxide, which allowed the engine to be throttled for more control. While all of the facts are not in yet, it appears that the motor which exploded on Friday was a new design based on a solid fuel comprised of some plastic substance.
We also learned yesterday that the Orbital Science Antares rocket was destroyed on command from NASA. The launch was the first by Orbital Science to carry supplies to the International Space Station on board their Cygnus space capsule. The Antares booster used Russian built rocket engines. Another space company, Space X, owned by Elon Musk, has already flown cargo missions to the ISS using the Falcon rocket and Dragon space capsule. The Falcon uses rocket engines designed and built by Space X themselves. As the Antares rocket was launched from Wallops Island Tuesday evening, something went wrong moments after lift-off, forcing range safety officers to activate the self-destruct system.
In the near term, these two incidents are serious set backs for the commercial space industry. Virgin Galactic has already sold some 750 tickets, priced between $200,000 to $250,000, for their sub-orbital space tourism flights, which they had hoped to begin next spring. For the long run, such accidents are to be expected as new technology is tested and utilized. There are now some 800 companies looking to make a splash in the commercial space industry.