Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps


The author films as WhiteKnight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

On Oct. 4, the world marked the anniversaries of two very different space milestones. In 1957, the Soviet Union launched the first artificial satellite, Sputnik. And in 2004, SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize by becoming the first privately-built vehicle to fly to space twice within two weeks.

While Sputnik quickly led to Sputnik 2 and 3, the Ansari X Prize has been followed by a decade of frustration. SpaceShipOne never flew again, nor has anyone replicated its accomplishments since. The dream of a vibrant new industry that would routinely fly thousands of tourists into space has remained just out of reach.

So, why did Sputnik quickly help spark a revolution that would transform life on Earth, while the Ansari X Prize led to 10 years of extravagant promises and desultory results? And what does this tell us about the role of prizes in moving technology forward?

Continue reading ‘Apollo, Ansari and the Hobbling Effects of Giant Leaps’

NASA, Moon Express to Host Project Update at KSC

moon_is_me_logoNews media representatives are invited to a project update to discuss planned Moon Express vehicle testing set to begin in November at Kennedy’s Shuttle Landing Facility. The event will occur at 2 p.m. EST Monday, Nov. 3.

Moon Express Inc., headquartered at the NASA Research Park at Moffett Field, California, will perform vehicle testing at the facility as part of NASA’s Lunar Cargo Transportation and Landing by Soft Touchdown or CATALYST initiative. The purpose of the Lunar CATALYST is to encourage the development of U.S. private sector robotic lunar landers, and this initiative is being executed by means of no-funds-exchanged Space Act Agreements with U.S. private sector partners.

During the event, members of the media also will have the opportunity to tour the Morpheus hangar and visit the autonomous landing and hazard avoidance technology, or ALHAT, hazard field. In addition, engineers and technicians with NASA’s Swamp Works laboratory will provide a robotics demonstration adjacent to the hazard field.

For more information about Lunar CATALYST, visit:


For more information about Moon Express, visit:


Orbital Sciences Does Launch Pad Assessment, Begins Accident Investigation

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

Orbital Sciences Antares Update – October 29

Early this morning, range officials performed an aerial survey of the launch facilities and surrounding areas at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility where yesterday’s failure of the Antares rocket occurred after it lifted off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport’s Pad 0A.  Shortly after, a team of representatives from NASA, MARS and Orbital entered the launch site to perform a preliminary assessment of the launch complex and related facilities.  The overall findings indicate the major elements of the launch complex infrastructure, such as the pad and fuel tanks, avoided serious damage, although some repairs will be necessary.  However, until the facility is inspected in greater detail in the coming days, the full extent of necessary repairs or how long they will take to accomplish will not be known.

NASA has posted aerial views of the launch pad taken earlier today here.

Also today, Orbital made progress forming a permanent Accident Investigation Board (AIB) comprised of company officials, along with representatives from NASA and the NTSB, with the FAA providing overall oversight of the process.  Initially, Mr. Rich Straka, Senior Vice President and Deputy General Manager of Orbital’s Launch Systems Group, served as the interim chairman to begin the investigation process immediately after the launch mishap.  Today, Orbital appointed Mr. Dave Steffy, Senior Vice President and Chief Engineer of the company’s Advanced Programs Group, a highly experienced engineer well-versed in launch vehicle engineering and operations, to serve as the permanent chairman of the AIB.

No follow-on press conferences are planned at this time. Further updates on the situation and the progress of the ongoing investigation will be provided as they are available.

Assessment Team Completes Initial Evaluation of Antares Launch Complex Damage

An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.'s Antares rocket Oct. 28. (Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach)

An aerial view of the Wallops Island launch facilities taken by the Wallops Incident Response Team Oct. 29 following the failed launch attempt of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket Oct. 28. (Credit: NASA/Terry Zaperach)

WALLOPS ISLAND, Virg. (NASA PR) — The Wallops Incident Response Team completed today an initial assessment of Wallops Island, Virginia, following the catastrophic failure of Orbital Science Corp.’s Antares rocket shortly after liftoff at 6:22 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Oct. 28, from Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

“I want to praise the launch team, range safety, all of our emergency responders and those who provided mutual aid and support on a highly-professional response that ensured the safety of our most important resource — our people,” said Bill Wrobel, Wallops director. “In the coming days and weeks ahead, we’ll continue to assess the damage on the island and begin the process of moving forward to restore our space launch capabilities. There’s no doubt in my mind that we will rebound stronger than ever.”

Continue reading ‘Assessment Team Completes Initial Evaluation of Antares Launch Complex Damage’

Dramatic Video of Antares Accident From the Press Site


The view of the Antares accident from the press site several miles away.

Orbital Stock Takes a Serious Tumble as Company Seeks to Reassure Investors


Orbital Sciences stock took a major nose dive today following the failure of the company’s Antares launch vehicle last night. The stock is down more than 15 percent today.

Orbital officials held a conference call with investors and analysts earlier today. [Transcript] David  W.  Thompson,  CEO and chairman, and Garrett  E.  Pierce,  CFO and vice  chairman, spoke during the call. Below is a summary of the major points they made:

  • a lot of data on launch, don’t expect a problem in determining what went wrong
  • expects to zero in on the cause of the accident over the coming days
  • could take longer to determine the root cause
  • cautioned against drawing early conclusions, sometimes early guesses they are wrong
  • launch complex spared any major damage
  • Orbital carried insurance that will cover contract revenue on flight and repairs to launch complex
  • company has “ample and conservative” management reserves for the recovery period
  • next Antares/Cygnus launch was scheduled for early April
  • expects a delay of three months but hopefully not more than one year — too early to tell at this stage
  • company has amply supply of AJ-26 engines to cover remaining launches to the International Space Station under the Commercial Resupply Services (CRS) contract with NASA
  • about two years away from flying Antares launch vehicle with a new first-stage engine
  • company could accelerate that change over if AJ-26 engine is identified as cause of the accident
  • will make a decision in November as to what to do about the engine change
  • hinted at possible other options other than accelerating the engine change but would not elaborate
  • still on track to submit a proposal for the CRS-2 contract in a few weeks
  • flights under CRS-1 extension agreement and CRS-2 proposal would be done with a new first-stage engine
  • do not expect the failure to affect planned merger with ATK
  • too early to tell whether early December vote on ATK merger will be delayed.

NASA Statement on Orbital Sciences Antares Failure

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

NASA Statement Regarding Oct. 28 Orbital Sciences Corp. Launch Mishap

The following statement is from William Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, regarding the mishap that occurred at Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia during the attempted launch of Orbital Sciences Corp’s Antares rocket and Cygnus cargo spacecraft at 6:22 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 28.

“While NASA is disappointed that Orbital Sciences’ third contracted resupply mission to the International Space Station was not successful today, we will continue to move forward toward the next attempt once we fully understand today’s mishap. The crew of the International Space Station is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies.

“Orbital has demonstrated extraordinary capabilities in its first two missions to the station earlier this year, and we know they can replicate that success. Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback. Today’s launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station.”

Updates will be posted as available on NASA’s Orbital page, at:


No Cause of Antares Failure Identified Yet

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

A massive explosion occurred right after the Antares rocket hit the ground.

A NASA/Orbital Sciences press conference just ended. Here’s are the key details:

  • Orbital’s Frank Culbertson said launch operators realized there was a failure at 10 to 12 seconds into the flight. They noted it on telemetry and visually.
  • The range safety officer activated the vehicle destruct system at about 20 seconds.
  • It’s too early to say exactly what caused the failure. Data have been locked down, which is standard procedure.
  • Culbertson says it is too soon to say how long it will take to resume flights.
  • There were no injuries in the accident, all personnel are safe.
  • Damage was limited to the southern area of Wallops Island.
  • The extent of damage to the launch pad is unknown. Some systems are continuing to hold pressure.
  • Vehicle integration facility is outside the hazard zone, officials expect to see no damage there.
  • Crews are allowing fires to burn themselves out and securing the perimeter.
  • Personnel will enter the area on Wednesday morning to begin recovery efforts.
  • Officials have warned local residents to avoid any debris they find because it might be hazardous or toxic and to notify authorities.
  • NASA officials said there was nothing crucial on the Cygnus freighter.
  • International Space Station could probably go until March without any resupply missions.
  • A Russian Progress resupply ship is scheduled to launch on Wednesday.
  • SpaceX Dragon freighter is set to fly on Dec. 9.
  • Officials might rearrange some of the Dragon manifest.
  • Orbital does carry some insurance on the rocket. Culbertson unable to say how much.
  • There are provisions in the resupply contract to reimburse NASA for Orbital’s failure to perform. No details provided.

Orbital Sciences Statement on Antares Failure

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.

The bottom of the Antares explodes right after liftoff.


Orbital Sciences Corporation confirms that today’s Antares rocket launch from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility was not successful. Shortly after lift-off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport Pad 0A at 6:22 p.m. (EDT), the vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure. According to NASA’s emergency operations officials, there were no casualties and property damage was limited to the south end of Wallops Island. Orbital has formed an anomaly investigation board, which will work in close coordination with all appropriate government agencies, to determine the cause of today’s mishap.

“It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” said Mr. Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s Executive Vice President and General Manager of its Advanced Programs Group.“As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations. We will conduct a thorough investigation immediately to determine the cause of this failure and what steps can be taken to avoid a repeat of this incident. As soon as we understand the cause we will begin the necessary work to return to flight to support our customers and the nation’s space program.”

Orbital will provide more information as it becomes available and is verified.

Antares Launch Reset for Tuesday Evening

Antares rocket on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Antares rocket on the launch pad on Wallops Island. (Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls)

NASA Mission Update

The third Orbital Sciences cargo mission to the International Space Station under NASA’s Commercial Resupply Services contract is scheduled to launch at 6:22 p.m. EDT Tuesday, Oct. 28, from Pad 0A of the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia.

NASA Television coverage of Tuesday’s launch will begin at 5:30 p.m. A post-launch news conference will follow at approximately 8 p.m.

A Monday launch attempt was scrubbed because of a boat down range in the trajectory Orbital’s Antares rocket would have flown had it lifted off.

A Tuesday launch will result in the Cygnus spacecraft arriving at the space station early Sunday, Nov. 2. NASA TV coverage of rendezvous and berthing will begin at 3:30 a.m. with grapple at approximately 4:58 a.m.

For the latest information on news conferences and coverage times, visit:


For more information about Orbital’s mission, visit:


For more information about the International Space Station, visit: