When reporters asked the first U.S. man in space, Alan Shepard, what he thought about as he sat atop a Mercury launch vehicle, he's said to have responded, "The fact that every part of this ship was built by the low bidder."
That sentiment may hang heavy over the launch failure at a NASA facility near the coast of Virginia on Tuesday night. An Antares rocket from contractor Orbital Sciences came crashing back down onto the launch pad within moments of the launch of a flight intended to deliver supplies to the International Space Station. The mission was unmanned, and there were no injuries reported on the ground.
The cause of the failure remain unknown. But Orbital has marketed the Antares as a "cost effective" way to launch payloads, due at least in part on its reliance on recycled Soviet-era rocket engines — a move that has drawn criticism from some, including competitor SpaceX's founder, Elon Musk. Here's what he told Wired in a 2012 interview:
One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, has a contract to resupply the International Space Station, and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke. It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.
Orbital has previously acknowledged some issues with the engines, with Executive Vice President Frank Culbertson telling Space Flight Now last year that the company has done refurbishing work on the supply. "As we went through testing, we did discover there were some effects of aging since they had been in storage for a while, including some stress corrosion cracking," he said. "That's what we're correcting with the weld repairs and other inspections."
In May, one of the refurbished engines was destroyed in a ground test at a NASA center in Mississippi — with some sources saying it "exploded" — although the exact cause has not been disclosed. In a news conference Tuesday night, Culbertson said a thorough investigation would need to be completed before it could determine whether the engine was a factor in the failure.
NASA's share of the federal budget has shrunk dramatically since the peak of the space race, and it has faced significant challenges even maintaining its ability to support current missions in recent years.
Past U.S. launch failures have sometimes been blamed on poor work by contractors, who became more directly involved in U.S. government launches after a push toward privatization aimed at lowering costs in the 1980s and 1990s.
In the late 1990s, the U.S. space industry suffered a string of problems, including three military and two civilian flight failures. The military launch failures resulted in the loss of payloads totaling more than $3 billion dollars. A broad area review report of the issues ordered by President Bill Clinton cited contractor mishaps for the bulk of the problems, saying "factory-introduced engineering and workmanship errors predominate."
The final report from the board that investigated the 2003 Columbia disaster, which cost the lives of all seven crew members aboard the space shuttle, cited "years of resource constraints" as among the factors that resulted in the accident.