Flash and splash…

NASA’s Glory spacecraft sitting on the launchpad just moments before its fateful launch. Credit: Scientific American

In last week’s post, I highlighted the upcoming launch of Orbital Sciences’ Taurus XL rocket that would be carrying NASA’s Glory spacecraft into orbit. Unfortunately, for NASA and Orbital Sciences (and taxpayers), the launch didn’t go quite as planned. After pushing the previous launch date back a few days because of a “computer glitch on the booster”, NASA “successfully” launched Glory around 5:00am on Friday. I say “successfully” in that the rocket actually got off the ground; unfortunately, it didn’t actually make it into space either.  About three minutes into the mission, telemetry began sensing problems and from there things went south rather quickly. The short story is that the “fairing“, the part of the rocket that protects the payload (read “spacecraft or scientific instruments:, in this case, the Glory satellite), failed to detach and thusly made the satellite too heavy to obtain its 700km low-earth orbit. So, instead of orbiting Earth and making useful observations about Earth’s changing climate, the $424.1 million satellite is at the bottom of the Pacific Ocean. At least that’s what NASA thinks. According to launch director Omar Baez, “All indications are that the satellite and the rocket are in the Southern Pacific Ocean somewhere.”

Glory was primarily composed of two instruments, one that would make detailed observations of the total energy output of the Sun and another that would looked at aerosols in Earth’s atmosphere that can trap solar energy or reflect it back into space. In any case, Glory was supposed to be a big step in NASA’s research on Sun-Earth interaction and climate change. As deputy associate administrator for science operations at NASA headquarters, Mike Luther, “[Glory] would have made important measurements for the understanding of Earth as a system and the impacts of climate change.However, [NASA] will continue to contribute and make significant contributions to the understanding of the Earth with its 13 existing missions and a cadre of aircraft, ground networks and data systems contributing to Earth science research.”

The failure of the Taurus XL isn’t the only loss for Orbital Sciences either, it had also built the actual Glory spacecraft. But at least this isn’t the first time this has happened. Yeah, that’s right, two years ago, the exact same thing happened with another of Orbital Sciences’ Taurus XL rockets. Back on February 24, 2009, NASA lost its Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO), a $273 million dollar satellite mission, when the payload fairing failed to separate after launch. So OCO and Glory are probably sitting right next to each other “somewhere in the South Pacific”. At least Orbital Sciences is consistent. And despite the company’s claims to have completely resolved the fairing issue (obviously not) by redesigning their system and having successfully flown the new design three times in the past two years, Orbital Sciences has now cost NASA nearly $700 million.

Although several other companies, like SpaceX Corporation, are licking their lips as Orbital Sciences licks their wounds, this has to give NASA administrators and President Obama’s administration doubts about the capability of private companies to successfully (and safely) deliver astronauts to space. NASA’s going to have a tough future ahead of it if it still wants to launch missions without building its own rockets.

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One Response to Flash and splash…

  1. Jarman says:

    Wow… this is sad.

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