About a month back, I wrote a blog
lamenting that America no longer did Big Things. In the 60s, as the Cold War ramped up, JFK exhorted us to go to the moon. It was meant to be a symbolic show of the superiority of Capitalism and Democracy over Communism and Authoritarianism. Ultimately, it was an exercise that gave us a lot of jobs and scientific innovation. The space program was a series of steps - from the one man capsules of Mercury, to the two man capsules of Gemini, to the 3 men capsules of Apollo.
After going to the moon seemed to become almost quaint, the Apollo program quietly died, and was replaced by the Space Shuttle. That was meant to be a reusable workhouse, transporting astronauts and cargo to build and maintain a laboratory in permanent earth orbit. It succeeded in its task. However, it too became the victim of its own stagnation, and an increasingly tight-fisted economic mindset that no longer saw the program as a necessity, but simply a costly line item for our nation's budget.
That led us to where we are now. Initially, we had to rely on the Russian and Chinese to ferry supplies and people to and from the space station. Countries who we originally sought to beat into space to show our superiority are now doing that which we used to proudly do ourselves. JFK must be spinning in his grave.
The "brilliant" market-driven mindset solution to this was the Free Market - allowing private companies to take over where NASA once excelled. We certainly used a lot of private companies previously to build our hardware, but it was tightly controlled by the government. Now - we're looking at private taxi service to outer space.
Along the way, technology has grown in leaps and bounds. The phones we carry in our pockets have more computing power than the computers that put a man on the moon. We do less with more. The one thing that hasn't changed since the early days of space exploration is our relationship with gravity. Despite all of technical advances, we still have not figured out how gravity works, and thus must - after all these decades - still use brute force to overcome it. Thus - we still have a need for powerful rocket engines, fueled by explosive liquids.
We were reminded of that reality once again last night as an Antares rocket blew up shortly after takeoff
. There is no official explanation as to why yet, and it may be months before all the data and footage and whatever little bits of twisted metal and plastic may be left are analyzed. There were no lives lost, but the costs still loom large - another option into space has been set back and may not survive the perception problem this type of accident creates.
If it turns out to be a problem with the engine, then we as a country have only ourselves to blame. Apparently, there are very few options available for rocket engines
, so Orbital Sciences was forced to use a decades-old Russian model
Orbital Sciences is scrambling to find a liquid-propulsion rocket engine that is in production and available for export to the U.S. to pave the way for its new Antares rocket, the centerpiece of a bid to compete for commercial and government work for decades to come. But just as NASA is finally turning to commercial launch providers, the Virginia-based company is running into roadblocks that jeopardize the rocket's future after only one launch.
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.
Orbital officials say its only current alternative is the RD-180 engine made in Russia by NPO Energomash. But the United Launch Alliance (ULA), which operates the U.S. Air Force's Atlas V and Delta IV fleets, holds exclusive rights in the U.S. to buy the RD-180.
We no longer make rocket engines here in the U.S.? Companies that design and build rockets don't make their own engines? The notion of outsourcing manufacturing and "sourcing" subcomponents from other manufacturers (generally overseas) is a scab on the soul of American manufacturing, and - as this episode shows - you end up getting what you pay for. In an effort to cut corners - whether to save time or money - the company is facing a costly setback.
And as Americans across the country watched yet another American-made rocket blow up (and having Challenger Disaster flashbacks), we once again showed ourselves and the rest of the world that we don't have the mustard to conquer space anymore. We just want to throw some stuff into the air and collect a paycheck, while other countries focus on making bigger, better, stronger, more sophisticated near-space transports. It will likely be a country other than the U.S. that puts the first man (or woman) on Mars.
That is a shame. It's time for the next Big Thing, and making our own rocket engines would be a good place to start.