Friday’s successful launch of a Russian Progress cargo ship to the International Space Station in the wake of the SpaceX disaster has NASA officials breathing a sigh of relief. The spacecraft is due to deliver 6,100 pounds of food, fuel, and other supplies to the ISS on Sunday. But the destruction of the SpaceX Falcon 9 with its Dragon cargo ship has still caused people inside and outside the space agency to wonder about the future of commercial space upon which NASA has staked much of its future. As of this writing, SpaceX has not determined the cause of the overpressure anomaly that caused the destruction of the second stage of the launch vehicle.
On the one hand, the launch failure is clearly a setback, not only for SpaceX, but for the commercial launch industry in general, coming as it does on top of a number of other launch failures, including that of a Russian Progress this past Spring and an Orbital Sciences Cygnus last Fall. The idea behind relying on commercial launch providers is to not only provide cheap service to deliver cargo and eventually people to low Earth orbit, but to do so reliably.
On the other hand, the consensus across the board has been that the SpaceX disaster is part of the cost of doing business, taking into consideration the nature of rocket technology. Launch failures tend to be learning experiences upon which future successes are built. No less a personage than Buzz Aldrin suggested that the Falcon 9 launch failure means that the United States needs more and not less commercial space travel.
“If the recent SpaceX rocket trouble had been a failure of a government launch, we would dramatically increase funding to find the problem, fix the issue, and get back to flying. NASA’s commercial crew and cargo program is our only U.S. option to get astronauts and supplies to the ISS. It must be treated the same way. Shaving off dollars of the NASA budget on this type of activity is simply not an option if we want to have an American human spaceflight program. NASA’s purchasing of commercial crew and cargo space services are proving to be a dramatic cost-savings to the taxpayer compared to traditional programs.”
Aldrin is giving a clear warning to members of Congress not to use the accident to cut funding for the commercial crew program, which would start commercially run flights to take astronauts to and from the ISS starting in 2017. The matter, though, is in the hands of Elon Musk, the CEO of SpaceX, and his team of rocket engineers. If they can ascertain the problem and fix it quickly, the Falcon 9 disaster will just be a bump on the road to a commercial space future.