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Commercial space accidents not expected to slow NASA

Sharon Gaudin | Nov. 7, 2014
Space agency not without backup as SpaceX is ready to fly next month.

"There is a commercial space community made up of many different industries, and NASA's commercial cargo and crew program has nothing to do with the commercial tourism industry," Hubbard said. "I view these two things happening as pure coincidence. I didn't attach any significance other than synchronicity to that... You need to disentangle or reduce the perception that the commercial space [industry] is all one monolith and going to hell in a hand basket."

Hubbard and McCurdy both noted that the Orbital Sciences accident, which is the only one to affect NASA, only hurts the company itself since NASA contracted with a second commercial partner, SpaceX.

McCurdy, who wrote the book Space and the American Imagination, said it may take Orbital Sciences as much as a year to piece together what caused the rocket failure. In that time, the company may not be able to fly any new missions.

That would be a big opportunity for SpaceX to step up and possibly increase the number of its contracted missions with NASA. It's also possible that if Orbital Sciences falls too far behind, NASA may look for a third commercial partner for resupply missions.

The space agency may wait a year for Orbital Sciences, though likely not much longer, according to McCurdy.

"The Antares accident will raise questions over whether more government oversight might have lessened the risk, but there is no question that privately provided services to NASA for carrying out government missions will continue," said John Logsdon, former director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University. "By contrast, the debate over the ethics of space tourism -- is it worth the risk -- will intensify. But people who try to climb Everest sometimes die and that does not stop the attempts."

Both Hubbard and Logsdon served on the board that investigated the deadly Columbia space shuttle accident in 2003.

The experts said the Orbital Sciences accident is not expected to slow NASA's use of commercial spacecraft to ferry supplies to the space station. It's also unlikely that it will delay NASA's goal of launching spacecraft carrying astronauts from U.S. soil by 2017.

NASA partnered with SpaceX and Boeing Co. to build spacecraft to carry astronauts to the space station, freeing the U.S. from depending on Russia to carry its astronauts. The space agency has not launched astronauts since the space shuttles were retired in 2011.


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