Orbital Sciences Corporation (OSC) and NASA had a bad day late last week. A $424 million satellite named Glory, designed to monitor aerosols and solar irradiance that contribute to changes in climate, failed to be properly delivered to space, when the fairing of the company’s Taurus launch system failed to separate from the payload. The extra mass of the dangling nose cone meant that the propulsion system of the upper stage didn’t have enough oomph (to use the technical term) to get it into orbit, delivering it and its valuable payload instead to the bottom of the Pacific Ocean near Antarctica.
While launch systems have become more reliable over the years, launch failures still happen, and failure to separate critical parts at staging is one of the most common cause of them. Because the Taurus is a four-stage system, it has more opportunities to encounter this failure mode than most vehicles. What is very strange, however, is that this is the second such failure in a row for OSC.
Just a little over two years ago, on February 24th, 2009, a Taurus assigned to deliver the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) met exactly the same fate, and the two lost satellites are probably sitting on the ocean floor not far from each other. After that failure, OSC conducted an investigation to determine its cause. Apparently, that investigation failed as well, because if they had discovered and fixed the problem, it’s unlikely it would have happened again on Friday.
It’s worth pointing out that the Taurus doesn’t fly very much. There have only been four flight attempts in the past decade: three of them were failures, including the last two consecutive disasters already described. When you only do something every two and a half years on average, it’s easy to get things wrong from lack of practice. There’s an optimal “tempo” for launch operations. Try to do things too fast, or too slowly, and the odds of failure can go up dramatically (one of the many reasons why proposals to continue to fly the Shuttle, but at only a couple flights a year, are a bad idea).
But there’s something else funny going on here, and not in the holding-your-sides-with-laughter sense, that could create fodder for the conspiracy minded. Both OCO and Glory were specifically designed to help resolve the controversial issue of the degree to which earth’s climate is changing and if so, the degree to which human actions are the cause. NASA has been one of the many agencies criticized in the wake of the Climaquiddick scandal of late 2009 for fudging data, such as throwing out results from Siberian temperature monitoring stations, and generally massaging things in a way that somehow always seemed to confirm the politically correct AGW theory.