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.
These two satellites were designed to take human judgement out of the monitoring and modeling loop, to provide direct and unbiased global sensor data on things such as carbon levels, clouds, irradiation, and other factors that are crucial to understanding the planet’s climate and its variability.
Billions of dollars in continuing research grants and vast amounts of political power lie in ensuring that concern over global warming be kept at a boil. So if there were a person or persons concerned that the satellites might come up with the “wrong” answer, they might be highly motivated to make sure that they never got an opportunity to perform their respective missions. Of course, if so, it would behoove them to do so in such a way as to make it look like an accident.
And interestingly, this is exactly the kind of failure that could easily be dressed up for that kind of show. All it takes to prevent a separation is to go up on the gantry after launch processing has been completed and add something to bind the fairing to the stage. Depending on what kind of separation mechanisms are used (mechanical, such as springs, versus explosive), duct tape might even do the job. Of course, it would also take extremely lax security at the launch site, which is inside the boundaries of Vandenberg Air Force Base on the central coast of California.
The notion that the company itself would do this for pay is ludicrous, of course — their launch insurance rates are going to skyrocket after this, and it might even be the end of the rarely launched Taurus program. It will also have an impact on their prospects for continuing their existing contracts to deliver cargo, and potential contracts to later deliver crew to the International Space Station.
But that doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t have an employee on someone else’s payroll. When OSC did their failure investigation, one would assume that they considered sabotage, but if so, they must have ruled it out as a cause, or they wouldn’t have made whatever fixes they thought would solve the problem this time, but didn’t. This time, they may have to take the possibility more seriously, though it is still very unlikely.
It would be a tremendous, James Bondian challenge to carry out such an act in the security environment of Vandenberg, but with the potential amount of money involved, it shouldn’t be viewed as completely impossible. As improbable a scenario as it is, the coincidence does seem quite eerie. And at stake is not just three-quarters of a billion dollars worth of satellites, but the continuing debate over our role in earth’s climate and the appropriate political response to it.