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Commercial spacecraft failures keep NASA dependent on Russia


The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon spacecraft during Sunday's launch. Associated Press/Photo by John Raoux

Commercial spacecraft failures keep NASA dependent on Russia

Just a little over two minutes after launching on Sunday, the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket and unmanned Dragon cargo vehicle burst into flames, spewing fiery debris into the sky over Florida and incinerating 5,200 pounds of supplies, research, and hardware. The spacecraft was a resupply vehicle carrying the first docking port designed for future commercial crew capsules, a new spacesuit, and a water filtration system to the International Space Station (ISS).

Some fear the failed mission may prolong the United States’ dependence on Russia to transport American astronauts to the space station and may cast doubts on the wisdom of relying so heavily on private space contractors. Since NASA retired its last space shuttle in 2011, the United States has paid Russia an astronomical $70 million per seat to ferry American astronauts, according The Washington Post.

In addition to the cost of Russia’s services, increased tension between the two countries since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine have made independence from Russian space travel services seem prudent.

“After analyzing the sanctions against our space industry, I suggest to the USA to bring their astronauts to the International Space Station using a trampoline,” Russian Deputy Prime Minister Dmitry Rogozin tweeted in response to previous U.S. and European measures to clamp down on Russian banking and overseas assets, Time reported.

NASA hopes using private contractors for trips to low earth orbit will free the space agency to concentrate on the exploration of other planets and to eventually send a manned mission into deep space. The Falcon 9 made 18 previous successful launches. Sunday would have been its seventh resupply launch to the ISS under contract with NASA.

But it’s been a tough year in the space industry.

Falcon 9 was the third resupply mission, from three different launch providers, to fail within eight months. In October, a supply ship manufactured by Orbital Science Corp. exploded just six seconds after lift-off. Some of the supplies on Falcon 9 were replacements of those lost in the Orbital explosion. In April, a Russian cargo ship carrying thousands of pounds of equipment and supplies spun out of control and burned up.

Even though some loss of spacecraft is expected, NASA experts are dismayed at so many in such a short time.

“We expect losses in commercial flight,” said William Gerstenmaier, NASA’s associate administrator of the Human Exploration and Operations Directorate. “I just didn’t think we would lose them all in a year time-frame.” Still, Gerstenmaier is confident the Falcon 9 explosion won’t delay plans. In fact, he suggested it might help improve designs for future rockets.

NASA likes to have a six-month supply of food on the space station. The three astronauts onboard only have a four-month supply, but they are not in any danger, Mike Suffredini, ISS manager, said at a news conference. NASA would not return the astronauts to earth unless they got down to only 45 days of supplies.

Russia is scheduled to make another cargo ship launch July 3 in preparation for three more crew members to arrive later in the month.

SpaceX is planning to use a crewed spacecraft, Dragon V2, to carry three astronauts to the space station by 2017. The Dragon V2 is designed to withstand a much larger impact, and a problem similar to the one encountered in Sunday’s launch would not endanger the lives of the astronauts, SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell said.

The Associated Press contributed to this article.


Julie Borg

Julie is a World Journalism Institute graduate. She covers science and intelligent design for WORLD and is a clinical psychologist. Julie resides in Dayton, Ohio.

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