The NASA Rocket Failure – Routine Access to Space Still Not Available, But We’re Getting Closer

Moment of detonation: the ATK ALV X-1 rocket and $17 million NASA payload scrubbed in an instant (Explorer Fish)
Moment of detonation: the ATK ALV X-1 rocket and $17 million NASA payload scrubbed in an instant (Explorer Fish)

Early yesterday morning an Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV X-1 rocket launched from NASA’s launch facility at Wallops Island, VA. However, only 27 seconds and 11,000 feet into the flight, a launch anomaly prompted the range safety officer to hit the self-destruct button. According to sources, the ALV X-1 was a new type of launch vehicle costing $17 million (including NASA payload).

The ALV X-1 rocket is a sub-orbital design, otherwise more commonly known as a sounding rocket. Intended to carry instrumentation into the atmosphere, rather than into orbit, the ALV X-1 would complete a parabolic flight path, delivering the payload at a predetermined altitude to carry out experiments and parachute to Earth. At 5am Friday morning, this obviously didn’t happen.

It would seem that regardless of whether spaceflight is initiated by private enterprise, established space agency or Middle Eastern government, the challenges are the same, nobody has risk-free, routine access into space…

At the start of the month, we had the sad news that the SpaceX Falcon 1 Flight 3 failed after a stage separation anomaly at an altitude of 35 km. Then last week, the media was buzzing over news that Iran had sent a satellite into space only to be disputed by US analysts, saying the launch had actually failed.

Yesterday, a sounding rocket had to be destroyed 27 seconds into its supersonic flight over the Atlantic Ocean after being launched from Wallops Island. The ATK rocket was carrying two NASA experiments on board; Hypersonic Boundary Layer Transition (HYBOLT) and the Sub-Orbital Aerodynamic Re-entry Experiment (SOAREX) payloads were on board the 17 metre long rocket. HYBOLT was developed locally by NASA’s Langley Research Center, and was intended to study the effects of airflow around a craft travelling eight-times the speed of sound. SOAREX, designed by NASA’s Ames Research Center in California, consisted of three probes that would be released as HYBOLT was jettisoned. The SOAREX probes would then drop to Earth to evaluate new reentry techniques for spacecraft. Unfortunately both experiments fell prematurely to their fates at the bottom of the Atlantic.

The Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV X-1 rocket (NASA/ATK)
The Alliant Techsystems (ATK) ALV X-1 rocket before launch (NASA/ATK)

So what do these failures tell us about our highly successful space programs? Routine access to space is far from being a reality. Unfortunately (in the US and Europe particularly) there is this notion that everything must be proven to be “safe” before we try it out. Therefore, we should not be seeing rockets blowing up and there should never be a remote chance of a manned mission failure. But is this realistic? Some would argue that we are at a space-faring stage of human evolution and the risks should be lower than ever, but I’d argue that the risks are far greater now (with public and private pressure mounting) and we need to come to terms with some mission losses.

I’ve noticed a media trend for reporting more mission failures than successes. Let’s face it, how many times has a sounding rocket mission from Wallops Island made it to the headline news? I was watching a CNN news report last night with a repeated video loop of the ATK rocket explosion. Why is a launch failure treated with more media hype than launch success?

Regardless of the media spin on rocket launches, whether they are by NASA, Iran or SpaceX, launch failure only serves to highlight just how difficult space flight really is. For every failure there are huge advances in space technology, although space access may not be routine, I can guarantee over the coming decades, it will be.

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