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When Spaceships Explode

Much of the U.S. space program has become privatized in recent years and now instead  of a sometimes bumbling bureaucracy doing dumb things like launching the Challenger shuttle in frigid weather when its O-rings holding in its fuel weren’t flexible, there are corporations seeking to make big bucks.

The explosions last week of an Antares rocket Tuesday and the Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 on Friday were disasters and, considering the death of a SpaceShip2 pilot and serious injury to the other pilot, tragedies.

How much a part did greed play?

Bruce Gagnon, coordinator of the Global Network Against Weapons and Nuclear Power in Space, declared: “As space launch services become privatized the pressure to cut corners and save money will be enormous.  The idea of launching unsuspecting tourists onboard spacecraft built for profit first and safety last is frightening.”

Moreover, says Gagnon, “The plan by Elon Musk to move our civilization to Mars on rockets built, in part, by taxpayers is the first step in the aerospace corporation competition to grab the planetary bodies for resource extraction.  Currently, lawyers from the aerospace industry are trying to rewrite the UN’s Outer Space and Moon Treaties that say no individual, no corporation, and no country can claim ownership of the heavenly bodies. We are poised to carry the bad seed of greed, environmental destruction, and war with us into space.  It’s time for global public citizens to understand what the new space race is really about.”

You’d think that with a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to make deliveries to the International Space Station, Orbital Sciences Corp. would be very careful about the vehicles it was using to accomplish the task.

Instead, the Antares rocket was fitted with 1960s Soviet engines. Did the Dallas, Texas company pick them up at a rocket engine yard sale?

Elon Musk, the man behind the Tesla car and CEO of Orbital’s main competitor, SpaceX (with a $1.6 billion NASA contract for space station deliveries), told Wired in 2012 that using decades-old technology was one of the “pretty silly things going on in the market.”  Some aerospace companies, said Musk, were relying on parts “developed in the 1960s” rather than “better technology.”  As to Orbital Sciences, he said it “has a contract to resupply the International Space Station and their rocket honestly sounds like the punch line to a joke.”

“It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the 60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ‘60s­I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ‘60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere,” said Musk.

National Public Radio was told by Jonathan McDowell of the Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics that the engines were “in fact built in Russia, about 40 years ago and stored in plastic bags after their Moon program was cancelled.”

There was an echo earlier in the week of the denigration after the Chernobyl nuclear power plant catastrophe of Soviet machinery and, of course, U.S. nuclear plant machinery being much better. Then came the explosion of the Virgin Galactic StarShip2. And it was of U.S manufacture, like the General Electric nuclear plants in the post-Chernobyl disaster at Fukushima Daiichi in Japan.

The New York Times in its article on the StarShip2 crash, towards its end, raised the issue of whether there had been enough test flying. It quoted Marcos Caceras, director of space studies at the Teal Group consulting firm saying “in an age where it is very expensive to fly these vehicles, the pressure is to do the minimal amount of test flying.” Caceras continued,  “Everyone seems to be in need of more money to conduct more flights, so the pressure is to start operational flights too soon. Maybe we are being unreasonable here.”

Unreasonable, yes, but considering the quest for the almighty buck, to be expected.

The man behind Virgin Galactic, Sir Richard Branson, of other Virgin fame, had been seeking to fly passengers on SpaceShipTwo this spring. Some 800 people, including such luminaries as Leonard DiCaprio and Justin Bieber, have signed up for $250,000-a person tickets for a suborbital ride.

In June, the business-focused British magazine, The Economist, ran a piece headlined: “Space: the next startup frontier.” It was mostly about the heavy increase in recent times of  small space satellites being called nanosats, and the subhead read: “Where nanosots boldly go, new business will follow­unless they are smothered with excessive regulations.”

Whether having to do with loading the sky with nanosats or other space activities, space operations are far too risky, the unfettered exploitation of the heavens so in conflict with decades of international agreement, to allow money-making to ride high.

And that’s the new drill despite the high-minded and visionary Outer Space Treaty of 1967 and subsequent Moon Treaty. Next year, a company called Moon Express will, as its website says, send up its MX-1 spacecraft to begin to “unlock the mysteries and resources of the Moon. Our first technology demonstration mission planned for 2015 will be the first in an ongoing series of moon missions focused on science, exploration and commerce.”

As Fox News in its report on the project said, “Moon Express is just one of the many private companies planning space missions” and “no area has burgeoned more than the moon. Astrobiotic Technology also plans to mine the moon, for example. Bigelow Aerospace wants to sell property there.”

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at the State University of New York/College of New York, is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.

More articles by:

Karl Grossman, professor of journalism at State University of New York/College at Old Westbury, and is the author of the book, The Wrong Stuff: The Space’s Program’s Nuclear Threat to Our Planet. Grossman is an associate of the media watch group Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR). He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion.


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