Space sector suffers another loss

Photos showing (clockwise from left) Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday; exploding shortly after; and a shower of debris from the explosion. The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the Internatio
Photos showing Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday (above); exploding shortly after; and a shower of debris from the explosion. The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the International Space Station. Nasa said: "This is a blow to us. We lost a lot of important research equipment on this flight."PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Photos showing (clockwise from left) Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday; exploding shortly after; and a shower of debris from the explosion. The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the Internatio
Photos showing Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday; exploding shortly after (above); and a shower of debris from the explosion. The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the International Space Station. Nasa said: "This is a blow to us. We lost a lot of important research equipment on this flight."PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE
Photos showing (clockwise from left) Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday; exploding shortly after; and a shower of debris from the explosion. The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the Internatio
Photos showing Space X's Falcon 9 rocket lifting off at Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Sunday; exploding shortly after; and a shower of debris from the explosion (above). The unmanned rocket was on a routine cargo mission to the International Space Station. Nasa said: "This is a blow to us. We lost a lot of important research equipment on this flight."PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Third disaster in less than a year raises safety questions

MIAMI - The global space industry is reeling in the wake of three cargo disasters in less than a year, which have delivered a costly blow to efforts in supplying astronauts aboard the International Space Station (ISS).

The explosion of SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket on Sunday after its launch at Cape Canaveral, Florida, with a Dragon CRS7 spacecraft, also raised questions about whether US rockets are safe enough to start launching astronauts to space as planned in 2017.

"It is unfortunately part of the business. The idea of 100 per cent reliability is just not there," said Mr Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

"I am saddened at what happened today but tomorrow we will bounce back."

The first in a series of accidents came last October, when Orbital lost its Cygnus cargo carrier due to an apparent flaw in the Ukrainian-made engine aboard its Antares rocket, which exploded after liftoff from Virginia.

Then, in April, the Russian space agency lost communication with its ISS-bound Progress cargo capsule, which burned up on re-entry to Earth's atmosphere two weeks later.

And on Sunday, SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket exploded just over two minutes into its flight, with the Dragon cargo ship and its 1,800kg of expensive gear breaking up into pieces in the Atlantic Ocean near the Florida coast.

"This is a blow to us. We lost a lot of important research equipment on this flight," said Nasa associate administrator Bill Gerstenmaier.

Crew members living in orbit have plenty of food and supplies to last for the next four months, Nasa said, but officials admitted that no amount of planning could have prepared them for three major accidents in a row.

"We expected through the commercial cargo programme we would lose some vehicles. I didn't think we would lose them all in a one-year time frame," Dr Gerstenmaier said.

He said there was no common link to the accidents, and negligence was not an issue. Rather, he said, the problems show just how difficult it is to fly rockets.

"We are essentially operating systems at the edge of their ability to perform."

Before, SpaceX had flown its Falcon 9 rocket 18 times in a row without incident.

The company, headed by Mr Elon Musk, the co-founder of PayPal and Tesla, recently won the confidence of the US Air Force to deliver national security payloads to space.

SpaceX and Boeing are leading the US commercial industry's race to send astronauts to low- Earth orbit by 2017.

The United States has been unable to send astronauts to space since the 30-year shuttle programme was retired in 2011, leaving the world's astronauts to travel aboard Russian Soyuz vehicles at a cost of US$70 million (S$95 million) per seat.

Some experts are alarmed by the succession of problems - even if they are unconnected.

"People can put a positive spin on it," said analyst John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University.

"But three missions in a row to bring up experiments and supplies? The loss of that cannot be good," he said.

The next cargo supply ship to fly to the ISS will be a Russian Progress capsule, blasting off on July 3.

A Japanese HTV ship is launching in August, and Orbital - which like SpaceX has a billion- dollar-plus contract with Nasa to supply the ISS - is expected to launch again sometime later this year, after a one-year hiatus.

Rocket industry analyst Marco Caceres of the Teal Group said the pressure is on for SpaceX to fly again quickly, as soon as it figures out the problem that caused the blast.

"The moment they launch again successfully, this accident starts to fade into history really quickly," Mr Caceres said.

"The longer they wait... the more people start talking about, 'Maybe we were too overconfident about SpaceX'."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 30, 2015, with the headline 'Space sector suffers another loss'. Print Edition | Subscribe