It exploded seconds after takeoff, the majesty of a rocket launch erupting suddenly into a shrapnel-spewing fireball. Then, months later, another unmanned launch went catastrophically awry: A Russian rocket spun wildly out of control after it reached orbit, eventually burning up in the atmosphere as it crashed back to Earth.
Two rockets incinerated. Millions of dollars wasted. Several tons of food and cargo destined for the International Space Station gone.
Now, Elon Musk’s SpaceX is preparing to resupply the orbiting laboratory on Sunday. And with the failures of the Orbital ATK Antares rocket and Russia’s Progress 59 spacecraft, the pressure is on. Not just for the billionaire’s upstart space company, and its streak of seven straight successful launches to the station, but the future of the private space industry that SpaceX’s improbable success has helped spawn.
Once upon a time, space travel was purely the province of governments, which viewed it as an ancillary extension of their power and prowess. But in recent years, a “new space” movement has fueled the growth of a commercial space industry that is in large part backed by American billionaires and their seemingly wild goals of colonizing Mars, transforming humans into a “multi-planetary species” and making space travel the next tourist attraction.
But after two high-profile failures, there is suddenly a lot at stake — and questions about a still-nascent industry where failure is common, expensive and measured in mushroom-cloud plumes of smoke. Another explosion could undermine NASA’s bold experiment to contract out missions to the space station so that it could pursue the more grandiose mission of flying to Mars.
Video from April 14 shows a SpaceX rocket failing to land on an ocean platform, after delivering supplies to the International Space Station. The booster rocket apparently landed too hard and tipped over in the Atlantic east of Jacksonville, Fla. (Space X/YouTube)
And it could test whether the privatization of space is really viable, or the quixotic, unattainable dream of a class of billionaires — including Musk, Amazon.com’s Jeffrey P. Bezos (who owns The Washington Post), Microsoft’s Paul Allen and Virgin Galactic’s Richard Branson — who are investing millions on the high-stakes wager that humans will one day fly in the cosmos the way they do across the country.
“When you’re at a launch you’re on pins and needles every time, and you do breathe a sigh of relief every time there is success, ” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “That’s why the eyes are on our industry — because the difference between success and failure is enormous. But I also feel that we’re getting a lot more successes than failures under our belt. Not that failures won’t happen.”
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