Antares and Our Bright, Risky Future (Updated 10/31/14)

Today, I watched a rocket explode.

This afternoon, a privately built Antares rocket carrying some five-thousand pounds of food and other supplies headed for the International Space Station had a “Vehicle Anomaly” which is a very clinical euphemism for a rather spectacular fireball on the launch-pad. The rocket, along with its Cygnus module, are both products of  Orbital Sciences, a Virginia based private space company who, along with Elon Musk’s SpaceX, were awarded contracts by NASA to supply and eventually act as an astronaut taxi service for the ISS, opening up Low Earth Orbit to private industry and freeing up NASA to do what those nerds do best, the impossible.

First things first. While it is far too early to know what caused the failure, what is certain is the loss of the rocket, its delivery vehicle, and its payload represents an enormous loss in capital and human effort. Many, many people have poured their hearts and souls into the effort to make this vehicle a success and I sympathize with them. Nothing I’m about to say is meant to diminish or trivialize the emotions they are grappling with so soon after this event.

That said, everybody calm the fuck down. The media is already spinning this as a “Disaster” or a “Tragedy,” when it’s anything but. There are no reports of casualties or even injury among the ground crew or spectators (including the boat captain that forced the launch to be scrubbed yesterday because he floated inside the exclusion zone to get a better look. Bet he doesn’t do THAT again). The launch facilities have sustained damage, obviously, but they can and will be repaired.

I’m going to be honest here. When I saw that the launch had failed, I was excited, verging on happy. Part of that was doubtlessly the fault of the same primitive and violent part of my brain that only tunes into NASCAR races hoping for a crash, but it was more than that.

For a generation of Americans, maybe two, space travel has fallen into a dull routine.  NASA has gotten so damned good at this whole space thing that the average American has completely forgotten, or never realized, that a space rocket is, basically, a giant bloody bomb with a hole in one end.

The sense of danger and risk, and therefore excitement, is almost entirely absent. The public has forgotten that “Rocket Science” is supposed to really mean something. Back in the 50’s and early 60’s, we were losing a rocket a month, just as a cost of doing business. The first launch of the Mercury Redstone rocket failed on the launch pad after a flight reaching a total altitude of four inches. That same design carried the first American astronaut into space no long after.

Since then, the Apollo 1 disaster, the Challenger disaster, and the Columbia disaster have taken the lives of seventeen brave Americans. Our Russian counterparts have experienced similar tragedies, although records from the Soviet era are… less than a complete accounting.

Those were disasters, folks. Today was a learning experience. And there’s going to be a whole lot more of them before we’re finished. My hope is that we can use this incident to snap the public out of its stupor and reintroduce them to the excitement of space travel.

As soon as rocket launches became routine, they became boring. Chalk it up to human nature, but the familiar soon becomes the mundane if there isn’t a spark to reignite the passions we felt back at the beginning. Trust me on this, I’m divorced. During the Space Race, there was a sense of involvement and personal investment in our efforts to get to the moon before the Reds. But above all, there was a sense of danger and the romance that comes with it. Launches were watched like spectator sports. They were a national event, for God’s sake.

The worst thing that could happen now is for everyone to become all solemn and withdrawn, droning on about the loss in time and effort that this explosion represents. While completely true, it sends exactly the wrong message. Instead, remind people that this was the Antares Rocket’s fourth launch, the first three of which went off without a hitch. Remind them that the astronauts and cosmonauts on the ISS aren’t going to starve because NASA had the foresight to award the supply missions to multiple companies, so the Dragon capsule will be online shortly to fill in, which is a capability we didn’t have before.

But most importantly, remind them of who we are as human beings. Throughout the long, winding, occasionally shitty, but still proud history of our race, we keep pushing. When things fail, we sort through the bits, find the part that broke, and move on. Skyscraper collapses? We build a new one a couple stories taller for good measure. Bridge snaps? We build a longer one. Car crashes? We build a faster one. Plane falls from the sky? We build one that flies higher.

Rocket explodes? Build a bigger one. Carry more. Go faster. Go further.

Why? Because this is how we got here. And it’s the only way we’re going to reach our full potential. The sky is no limit.

Update 10/31/14: I’ve just read the news that Virgin Galactic’s Spaceship Two had its own anomaly during a powered flight this afternoon testing a new propellant mixture. Spaceship Two was lost. The status of the two man crew is not yet known, but parachutes were reported seen in the sky. The White Knight carrier plane landed safely.

All in all, it’s been a pretty rough week for private space flight, but a necessary one as well. The lessons learned from these two incidents may prove to be invaluable.

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