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The Antares Accident: Whose Rocket Was It?

Hint: not NASA's.

Posted by Casey Dreier

30-10-2014 1:21 CDT

Topics: commercial spaceflight, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, spacecraft

An uncrewed rocket built and launched by Orbital Sciences exploded during a routine servicing mission to the International Space Station on Tuesday. Fortunately, no one was hurt. The payload was completely destroyed.

Antares initial explosion flash

NASA / Joel Kowsky

Antares initial explosion flash
A bright flash and debris emerge from the bottom of Antares' core stage seconds after liftoff on Oct. 28, 2014. The rocket fell back to the ground and exploded.

CNN was among many news sources that reported the mishap with an important (and incorrect) use of language. Here’s an example, can you spot the error?

Savvy readers know that the Antares rocket is not a NASA rocket—it’s owned by the Orbital Sciences company. NASA pays Orbital to deliver supplies to the International Space Station, and NASA itself has no ownership of the rocket or the intellectual property related to it.

Casting Antares as a NASA rocket, though, generates predictable responses like this:

Criticizing NASA for the Antares’ mishap would be like blaming for the crash of a FedEx truck: NASA was the customer here. Would this person’s head explode if they knew Orbital Sciences was founded by Harvard Business School graduates and is publicly traded on the New York Stock Exchange (as ORB)? Maybe. But that’s not why I’m writing this post today.

Instead, I think this provides a great opportunity to explore what it means for Antares to be rocket owned by a private company. After all, the Atlas V, which launched Curiosity to Mars, is built by a joint venture of two private companies—Lockheed-Martin and Boeing—but few people would consider that in the same class. Likewise, Boeing is the prime contractor on NASA’s Space Launch System, which I would very much consider a “NASA rocket.” So what makes Antares different?

In a word: contracts

Ok, please don’t stop reading. It’s often the case that some of the most important developments in space exploration happen because of boring-sounding policy decisions. But understanding this is crucial to understanding the consequences of Tuesday’s disaster, i.e. why it’s worse for Orbital than for NASA.

For the most part, when NASA needs hardware, the aerospace industry will help develop and build it. In very basic terms, NASA will set forth some very specific design requirements, have significant and detailed project oversight, generally assumes responsibility for cost overruns, and guarantees a pre-determined profit for the company. NASA ends up owning the hardware after it’s built and also acquires much of the intellectual property rights associated with it. This is a common type of government contract known as cost-plus.

NASA took a very different strategy when it came to the problem of resupplying the space station after the retirement of the Space Shuttle. Instead of contracting hardware, it wanted to contract a service. NASA said (and this is very simplified): “We’ll pay you ferry stuff to the station. How you do it is up to you as long as you convince us it will work.” For those of you keeping track at home, this was the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) competition.

Instead of creating detailed requirements for the spacecraft and rockets, NASA stuck to big picture requirements: how much mass it wanted delivered to the ISS, how often, what it needed to come back to Earth, etc. The companies answering this call from NASA were left to develop their own specifics on how they would achieve these goals. NASA would provide assistance, both financial and technical, as a partner in the development effort, but not assume ownership of the hardware or of the resultant intellectual property.

Antares, an Orbital Sciences Rocket

Orbital Sciences' Antares Rocket
Orbital Sciences' Antares Rocket

Orbital Sciences

NASA ultimately decided upon two companies to provide resupply services to the International Space Station: SpaceX and Orbital Sciences, the latter of which proposed the Antares medium-lift rocket to carry the Cygnus cargo ship.

Over the course of five years (2008 - 2013) NASA supported Orbital in the development of Antares and Cygnus. Orbital passed a series of pre-defined milestones that unlocked further development money from NASA, though the company ultimately invested approximately $590 million of its own money developing the Antares and Cygnus. NASA chipped in $288 million for early development plus an additional $1.9 billion contract for eight resupply missions to be completed by 2016.

Orbital’s approach to the ISS resupply problem was to design a rocket that would utilize existing, proven technology from a variety of subcontractors in order to minimize costs (this is in marked contrast to SpaceX, which builds many of its components for the Falcon 9 in-house in its own attempt to save money). Orbital assembles the Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft using hardware from manufacturers around the world: Cygnus is built in Italy, the Antares’ first stage was developed and is built in Ukraine, and the first stage engines (the AJ-26s) are upgraded-but-still-Soviet-era hardware supplied by California-based Aerojet Rocketdyne.

The system had proved successful until the most recent flight, which would have been the third of the eight contracted resupply missions to the space station and the fifth successful flight of the rocket.

Look at this from the money perspective, and it clarifies even more. Orbital's contract is for eight successful resupply missions to the ISS; they are still on the hook to provide all of them, despite the failure of this mission. Frank Culbertson, Executive Vice President and General Manager of Orbital’s Advanced Programs Group, stated that the company lost over $200 million in hardware in Tuesday’s disaster. This does not include the damages to the launch site or the 17% drop in Orbital Sciences’ stock price on Wednesday. It’s their rocket to profit with, but they also assume a significant amount of financial risk in the effort.

Loaded Language

The Antares rocket wouldn’t exist if NASA didn’t need to resupply the ISS and didn’t provide billions of dollars worth of development money and supply contracts. Antares also has no other customers besides NASA (though there’s nothing stopping Orbital from selling launch services, like SpaceX does, to anyone it pleases within the constraints of U.S. law). So in a sense, Antares is a rocket for NASA, but it’s still not NASA’s rocket.

However, to the majority of people out there, NASA is anything space-related. The agency is assigned responsibility when things go wrong whether or not the contracting agreements say otherwise. NASA’s past successes are so ingrained in the culture that it’s nearly impossible to separate space from the space agency (SpaceX is a notable exception to this, though that’s thanks to some brilliant marketing).

I think the use of language post-disaster also betrays a certain mindset that wants to assign a narrative that anything “government” is fundamentally inept, and not just that launching things into space is really, really hard. It’s the seductive temptation to pigeonhole complex events into a pre-existing narrative, media or otherwise, and the failure of a rocket is no different.

But fundamentally, the Antares’ mishap provides us with a great opportunity not only to be reminded of the amount of work that goes into being a space-faring society, but also that some truly exciting things are happening in space. A rocket exploded off the coast of Virginia and it caused a company’s stock price to drop, since it was that company’s rocket. That’s actually pretty amazing. And over time, and as people truly internalize what’s going on, we’ll see the language of the U.S. space program diversify from NASA-only to NASA-and-commercial-industry. And that should be enough to make anyone’s head explode. Metaphorically.

See other posts from October 2014


Or read more blog entries about: commercial spaceflight, Explaining Policy, Space Policy, spacecraft


Skip: 10/30/2014 09:09 CDT

Great article. It certainly can be confusing. Can you explain the relationship between United Launch Alliance and NASA?

Casey Dreier (Planetary Society): 10/30/2014 10:51 CDT

Skip: One could spill lots of digital ink on the United Launch Alliance (ULA), but I'll do my best to summarize them here in a few paragraphs. The ULA is also a private company, representing a joint venture between Lockheed-Martin and Boeing, who used to independently provide rockets to the government. Like with Orbital, NASA contracts with the ULA to launch pretty much everything except cargo to the space station. Next month's launch of the Orion test vehicle will be on a Delta IV, for example. So in a very similar sense, their rockets, the Atlas V and the Delta IV, are not "NASA rockets." But I would classify them a little differently than the Antares and the Falcon, mainly because they came out of a long-term Defense Department initiative called the Evolved Expendable Launch Vehicle (EELV) program, and were designed and manufactured in a much more standard contracting history with a clear design mandates to service DoD needs. NASA is a far smaller, secondary customer. After the merger that created the ULA in 2006, launch costs have risen significantly in the past 10 years. Until SpaceX's rice, they were effectively a monopoly on government launches, and their rising cost (and strict export laws) prevented them from competing in any sort of commercial market. That said, the Atlas V is one of the most reliable rockets ever, and it is the only one rated to launch stuff like Plutonium-238. When you have a precious cargo like the Curiosity rover, it makes a lot of sense to pay more for the assurance it wont explode on the launchpad.

dwisehart : 10/30/2014 05:43 CDT

A good addition to the article is to mention the money SpaceX is being paid by NASA: $1.6 billion for 12 missions, carrying up to double the weight carried by Cygnus, with return cargo capabilities.

Kryten: 10/30/2014 08:36 CDT

Dragon might theoretically have more payload capability, but Cygnus has higher volume. Given ISS supply involves a lot of packaging and relatively low density, Cygnus has actually put up more payload so far. It'll be an even higher disparity when they get advanced cygnus working.

Ed: 10/30/2014 10:48 CDT

In my understanding of space law, both the customer (NASA) and the provider (Orbital) agree to a reciprocal waivers of liability. In a commercial launch, this means that the customer has no recourse against the provider, even in cases where the mission is a total loss. Thus, commercial launch customers take out insurance policies that cover both the cost of the spacecraft and the launch fee (that is, the launch provider is paid the launch fee regardless of the outcome). In this case, since the Federal Government is self insured, I assume it is NASA, and not Orbital, that is out the $200 million. I believe that Mike Suffredini alluded to this in the press conference on the night of the accident when he stated "the contract is set up so that we have compensation in case we don't make it all the way to orbit." Frank Culbertson has said the total cost was over $200 million, but I don't recall him saying that Orbital was responsible for that amount.

ethanol: 10/31/2014 02:16 CDT

Ed: Interesting, although unless I am misunderstanding your argument, NASA lost money, but nowhere near $200 million. That was the cost of the rocket (possibly rocket + payload, it isn't clear), NASA only lost the payload. If the payload were a satellite or probe, that could be very expensive indeed, but supplies probably aren't that expensive. If the contract was somehow written so that this counted as a completed launch for orbital, then NASA would have lost the full cost of the launch. But that does not seem to be the case.

A: 10/31/2014 03:45 CDT

As someone who builds spacecraft for a living, this exact point has bothered me for quite some time. Not just the Antares rocket, but all of the other successful high performance space missions that NASA conducts. NASA has received more than its fair share of misappropriated "good" press. Every mission I've worked, when successful, the press brands "NASA launches spacecraft to do exciting things", giving no mention to even the prime subcontractor. Most of the time when we hand over the keys, the spacecraft is more likely to fall out of the sky than anything, let alone could they even think about designing and building a similar system.

Barath: 11/01/2014 02:49 CDT

Ethanol. Nasa lost not only the payload - their pad was damaged. Plus, depending on the situation, they might have to pay another company for an extra flight to resupply the ISS. (Russia just sent up a progress to resupply ISS. I suspect it may be a longish time before Orbital gets to send up the 2nd of their 8 missions to the ISS. (The one which crashed would have been the 2nd)

SpaceKen69: 11/02/2014 09:02 CST

Good article. Couple of comments. This was the 3rd CRS mission for Cygnus, the fourth overall (one Cygnus on demo-COTS, 2 more on the CRS contract) all three were successful with up cargo and down-mass (trash, which is a valuable service to ISS...imagine your house filling up with trash over months). Antares had 4 successful flights prior to the incident (test flight of rocket, ORB-Demo, ORB-1 and ORB-2). And Cygnus PCM (the pony keg part) is made in Italy, the service module bus is made in Virginia. Orbital will be flying again, that's what they do.

Bob Ware: 11/02/2014 04:16 CST

Thanks Casey for taking the time to point out the differences for those who do not know.

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