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Saturday, March 5, 2011

Terrible Timing

Failure of NASA's Glory Earth-observation satellite to reach orbit couldn't come at a worse time for the beleaguered U.S. space agency.

It's bad enough to lose a $424 million spacecraft to a problem everyonethought had been fixed. It's even worse when Congress is eyeballing every federal agency for funds to cut, and the NASA administrator has just spent two days on Capitol Hill singing the praises of the commercial launch vehicle company that failed to get Glory into orbit.

Things started off just fine at Vandenberg AFB, Calif., early Friday, with the on-time launch of the Taurus XL 3110 carrying Glory toward its spot in the "A-train" constellation of Earth-observation spacecraft to monitor the subtle interrelationship between solar activity and Earth's climate.

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The satellite was built by Orbital Sciences Corp., which also provided the launch vehicle.

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NASA photos

Unfortunately, the fairing that protects the spacecraft during its trip through the atmosphere didn't separate as scheduled.

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Instead, the weight of the fairing dragged Glory to an ignominious crash in the southern Pacific ocean, a total loss.

The same thing happened to NASA's Orbiting Carbon Observatory in 2009, also launched on a Taurus and also lost when its fairing didn't separate. That $273.4 million spacecraft was designed to map carbon sources around the world.

After that failure, Orbital Sciences redesigned the mechanism that separates the Taurus fairing, replacing a pyrotechnic system that used hot gas from a small explosion to force the fairing doors apart. The redesign, based on the findings of a NASA failure board and approved by the agency, used cold pressurized nitrogen to separate the doors.

That redesign had already worked on three flights of Orbital's larger Minotaur launch vehicle, but for some reason it didn't work for Glory. NASA will convene another failure board to find out why.

These things happen in the high-risk world of spaceflight. Rocket engineers know that. But members of Congress aren't rocket engineers, so they might be wondering about the testimony they heard from NASA Administrator Charles Bolden this week on the prospects for the commercial launch providers NASA hopes will soon be delivering supplies and astronauts to the International Space Station.

In back-to-back appearances before the House Science Committee and the House Appropriations subcommittee that controls NASA's funding, the former shuttle astronaut praised Orbital's "100% success" with the Minotaur, and its long experience launching satellites, as evidence the "commercial crew" approach will work.

"I am certain that the commercial entities can deliver, because in the past, if you look at the two that I'm working with right now, at least one of them has been doing for more than 20 years," Bolden said. "Orbital has been delivering satellites to orbit since their inception."

That is true, and it would be wrong to read too much into the Glory failure in judging whether Orbital can launch supplies and eventually crews to the space station. The company does indeed have long and successful experience in commercial spaceflight, and it is following the maturing business to the ISS. The other company signed up to deliver cargo - and perhaps eventually crew - to the ISS is Space Exploration Technologies Inc. (SpaceX), which has only a handful of spaceflights under its belt.

It is certainly possible that both companies -- and maybe some others as well - eventually will fly NASA astronauts and other paying customers to orbit. But the loss of Glory illustrates just how difficult it will be.

On second thought, maybe the Glory failure came at a very good time. At least it injected a note of harsh reality into the political discourse, exactly when lawmakers need to understand the dangers of thinking spaceflight is simple -- or cheap.

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