Space Is Hard: SpaceX Rocket Explodes After Takeoff

With the loss of the Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket last fall, and the Russian Progress flight a few weeks ago, NASA now has no reliable launch providers to service the space station. But reliable or not, they will have to press forward with another Progress attempt this coming week. NASA also plans to move ahead with its next crewed flight on the Soyuz this summer, to get back to full capacity for research.

It isn’t a crisis, yet. The crew has four months of supplies, and they’ll get more soon with a successful Progress flight. The previous SpaceX mission had returned experiments in the station freezer, so that was not urgent for this flight, either. The biggest loss was the new International Docking Adapter, needed to allow multiple types of crew vehicles to dock with the station. However, there is a back up, and enough parts to build a third one. A few miniature satellites planned to be deployed into orbit from the ISS were also lost. Per the contract, the company won’t be required to refly, but will pay a penalty for the failure.

Politically, while it was a bad day for Elon Musk and his company and space enthusiasts generally, it was probably a good one for Senator Richard Shelby and others on the Hill who have been continually pressuring NASA to focus on a single provider (presumably their favorite, Boeing) for the Commercial Crew program, while chronically under funding it. In the ongoing budget battle this summer, they will doubtless attempt to use this failure as ammunition, even though it’s illogical to think that we should be reducing budgets and redundancy in the face of a failure. If anything, as with the Antares loss last year, it demonstrated the crucial need for multiple providers.

The event is also a reminder that opening frontiers is never safe or easy, and that space is the harshest one that we ever had to deal with. But each loss is also a lesson learned, and another step forward.