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Rocket explosion raises questions about commercial space travel safety

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  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Let's turn to some concerns being raised all over again about the privatization of the U.S. space program.

    This follows the explosion last night of a rocket that was scheduled to go to the International Space Station. Seconds after launch, the rocket exploded at the Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia owned by Orbital Sciences Corporation and contracted through NASA. It was supposed to deliver 5,000 pounds of supplies and experiments to the space station.

    NASA reported no problems just before the launch. Now there are many questions about what went wrong and whether old engines are to blame.

    Our science correspondent, and resident space expert, Miles O'Brien joins us from South Carolina tonight.

    So, Miles, welcome back.

    Problems with the engine. What's known about what happened?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, we can't say for certain, but all roads lead to suspicion about the engine.

    You have to ask yourself, what is operating at that stage of flight? First, you know, 10 seconds, give or take, is the first-stage engines, which are these 40-year-old engines. And we're not talking about 40-year-old technology. These are actually engines that go back to the Soviet era, were put in a warehouse, and were purchased by Orbital Sciences, refurbished, and put on this rocket.

    So, these were old engines, old designs. And you see the rocket kind of lurch, almost stop in its tracks. You see something falling through the plume. You see a discoloration in the rocket plume. And then very shortly thereafter, things go bad very quickly. Not long after that, they pushed the red button, which terminates the vehicle, as they say, the destruct button.

    So the suspicion is focused squarely on the engines.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Was there reason to suspect these engines ahead of time?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, they have had some difficulty with them on test stands, a couple of incidents, as they tested them, where they actually blew up with fuel line problems, and other issues. They date back to the Soviet effort to go to the moon with the giant N1 rocket, which had multiple launchpad failures.

    So these rockets have had trouble, but all rockets have trouble. This is a very difficult business going from zero to 17,500 miles per hour in the span of about 8.5 minutes. So, if you have the tiniest little leak or a turbo pump that goes awry, you're going to have problems. Things have to work perfectly.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Miles, how typical is it that engines that old are being used in spaceflight?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    I don't know of any other scenario where that has occurred, Judy. This is — this is unusual.

    And this is — says a lot about overall policy. Orbital Sciences, when it came time to pick an engine, didn't have a lot of places to go. There were no homegrown U.S. engines available to them. The Russians make another type of engine called an RD-180, a much bigger engine, but that engine was being purchased en masse by a consortium of Boeing and Lockheed Martin called the United Launch Alliance.

    And they were precluded from purchasing those engines. So they really didn't have any place to turn. This idea of taking these engines that were sitting in a warehouse, refurbishing them, and using them seemed to be the only alternative. And I think we can all agree it's probably better to build your own engines if you can.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And I noticed the Russians had a successful takeoff of one of their own rockets shortly after this — after this explosion and failure.

    Miles, just quickly, no safety issue with regard to the space station?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    No.

    And that launch points it out. There's plenty of paths to the station. That Russian Progress freighter is on its way. California-based SpaceX is on the docks to launch in December and February. The station — nobody on the station is going to go hungry.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, finally, commercial space travel, does this raise a question about its viability in the future? Or is this considered a one-off?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, it should raise questions, and rightly so. If you have an accident and you don't ask questions, you're never going to learn.

    The real question is, you know, NASA never has built a rocket on its own. It's always used contractors, Boeing and Lockheed Martin and their predecessor companies. What's different now is the way they do the contracts. They're not on the factory floor, as it were, watching how every bolt is turned and so forth.

    Instead, they're sort of, instead of being on the floor where the Ford is made, they're purchasing the car in the showroom, but with setting some parameters. And working out the right balance there, how to set the safety standards and how to fine-tune the level of scrutiny, is kind of a work in progress.

    And this will be one of the things that will come out of this investigation is, has the bar been set properly both on safety and the level of scrutiny that NASA is applying to these commercial entities?

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    And, again, thankfully, no loss of life, no injuries.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes. Yes.

  • JUDY WOODRUFF:

    Miles O'Brien, we thank you.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome, Judy.

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