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Wednesday, October 29, 2014

It's Time To Stop Using Ancient Rockets

Two years ago, Elon Musk said this about Orbital Sciences' use of Russian rocket engines to ferry cargo for NASA to the International Space Station:
One of our competitors, Orbital Sciences, 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 ’60s—I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s and, like, packed away in Siberia somewhere.
Yesterday, the third flight of Orbital's rocket which was to deliver supplies to the ISS blew up shortly after lifting off. While we don't yet know that a rocket engine on the first stage failed, we do know that an identical engine blew up on a test stand in May. The cause of that explosion has not been disclosed yet.

Orbital's competitor to deliver supplies to the ISS is, of course, Musk's SpaceX, which builds and fully-tests its own rocket engines. One of them failed on an earlier flight, but because the Falcon 9 rocket is designed to safely get to orbit even if one engine fails, the mission was a success for NASA. Orbital not only uses 50-year-old rocket engines purchased from Russia, it uses only two engines on the first stage of the rocket. So, if one fails, the mission itself is a complete failure.

It's time to re-examine the logic behind Orbital's use of half-century-old rocket technology before they have another failure.