Streetwise Professor

October 28, 2014

An American Space Disaster, With a Russian Connection

Filed under: Military,Politics,Snowden — The Professor @ 7:48 pm

An Antares spacecraft operated by Orbital Sciences and contracted to NASA to carry supplies to the International Space Station exploded on liftoff in Virginia. A failure for the American space program? Yes. But the major failure may be due to the fact that this craft, like most others operated by US companies, relies on Russian engines. Soviet engines, actually. I mean literally built in Soviet times. They have been refurbed, but Orbital Sciences was supposedly concerned about quality:

The NK-33 engine that powered Antares’ first flight was built decades ago by Russia’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau and is no longer in production. Further, Orbital is uncertain about the quality of Aerojet‘s remaining stockpile of 23 NK-33s, beyond those set aside for NASA’s CRS-1. Aerojet Rocketdyne is Orbital’s primary subcontractor and overhauls the old NK-33 engines into a configuration for Antares, dubbed AJ-26.

The fraught relationship with Russia, and Russian threats (uttered by Rogozin the Ridiculous, true) to cut off supplies of engines to the US has spurred efforts here to develop an American engine. Maybe NASA and the Pentagon should expedite those efforts.

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  1. Your bete noire Elon Musk is the only one working this problem at SpaceX. As I see SpaceX as the good Musk and Tesla as the bad Musk this creates no cognitive dissonance for me.

    Comment by srp — November 1, 2014 @ 1:48 am

  2. @srp-Yes, SpaceX is Musk’s most admirable venture, because it is least dependent on government subsidies. Although not completely independent. I wrote some months back about how SpaceX played states off one another to get huge tax breaks.

    I judge him by his works. Some of those are admirable. He veers into bete noir territory when he attempts to pass off the results of government largess as the product of his genius.

    I wouldn’t say that he is the only one working the rocket problem. Bezos has been working on it for some time, and recently entered into cooperation with the Boeing-Lockheed ULA venture. The Air Force has also started to move, albeit slowly, to encourage the development of a domestic alternative.

    Musk does have a point about the Boeing-Lockheed venture being crony capitalism, but he’s not exactly an untainted bearer of that message.

    The ProfessorComment by The Professor — November 1, 2014 @ 2:58 pm

  3. The thing about SpaceX is that they did what many long suspected but few dared state aloud–they showed that NASA’s R&D process is an order of magnitude too expensive for many of the purposes to which it is put and that NASA produces uneconomical spacecraft as a matter of institutional course, not for technical reasons. So the spell has been broken. Bezos et al are presumably doing some cool stuff, but SpaceX has already executed and delivered in an unprecedented way. In the immediate future I don’t see anything on the horizon that will be in the same ballpark of cost-effectiveness. The opaque reports about the Blue Origins-ULA deal didn’t make it clear to me who would be doing what, but the more the merrier for now in this area.

    Comment by srp — November 8, 2014 @ 10:37 pm

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