By David Fritsch
So, last month a private company named Orbital Sciences, under a NASA contract, launched their
Antares rocket from a launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. As you probably saw on YouTube, it
blew up. More correctly, an Orbital Sciences employee pressed a button that intentionally blew it up.
Sensors on the rocket indicated a problem with one of the fuel pumps, which meant the rocket was
not going to be able to get its cargo into orbit.
The decision was made to destroy the rocket over the launch pad, since a two-mile radius around the
pad had been cleared of people.
I have to level with you: I have not really followed Orbital Sciences much. In fact, somebody asked me
about it when it happened, and I could not even remember the name of the company.
I have watched SpaceX pretty closely, since they have had some successful space station resupply
missions and they decided to build a launch facility down outside of Brownsville.
This is particularly exciting to me, because that is close enough to drive to and try to watch a launch.
I have tried to keep up with the Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic stuff, also. These are the people
who run SpaceShipTwo, the sub-orbital space plane that was destroyed during a test flight a week
after the Antares explosion. tAt any rate, when that rocket exploded, I started to poke around a little
bit to find out what Orbital Sciences was up to. It turns out that the Antares uses two AJ 26-62 rocket
These were originally built an incredible 39 years ago, in the Ukraine, for the Soviet Union to use.
The design is even older – then called the NK-33, they were originally intended to be used on the
Soviet N-1 rocket, which was their response to the Saturn V moon rocket.
A digression that is of interest perhaps only to me: To get to the International Space Station, Orbital
Sciences planned to use two AJ 26-62 motors in stage with the Castor 30XL solid rocket second stage.
This would provide a peak thrust of 1,630,000 Newtons and a total burn time… Look, to get to the
ISS, they were going to use two of those motors.
The N-1, in order to get to the moon, used thirty of them. Thirty. The Soviets tried to launch four
N-1s, and all four of them blew up.
If you like rocket explosions, Google the N-1 5L launch. It is considered one of the largest non-nuclear
If you have ever been in my classroom, you know that I might not be the most objective, unbiased
person to answer this question. But, since you asked me the question: Keep going, of course. NASA,
all the private companies, the European Space Agency, everybody. They just landed on a comet, for
crying out loud. Some things are worth it.
Look, trying to get into space is dangerous. Things do not always go to plan. The first year NASA was
in operation, all of its rockets failed. All of them. They started launching rockets in 1958, and it took
until 1972 before they went 18-for-18, successfully launching all of its rockets. So, Orbital Sciences
had one rocket blow up, and everybody starts asking questions. NASA has blown up a hundred
rockets, and nobody these days seems to remember.
One person has died in a commercial spacecraft accident. One person has died at the Amundsen-
Scott South Pole Station. In the middle of the Antarctic winter, no one can get off of Antarctica.. In
2000, an astrophysicist died there because they could not evacuate him to a hospital.
There was no outcry about this; no one argued about “What should we do now?” or “Should we shut
down the program?”
A second digression: My uncle Ed, St. Thomas High School class of 1974, has been to Antarctica as
part of a scientific ballooning expedition, doing cosmic ray research over the pole. He described it as
so cold as to defy any understanding.
Not good enough? William Butten. William Butten was an English Pilgrim, traveling to America on
the Mayflower. He died three days before the sighting of the east coast of America. Four others died
between the sighting of land and the establishment of a colony. Life is risky business sometimes.
Whatever you are risking, the risk is there. Time, money, safety, whatever. William Butten did not
plan on dying, but he certainly understood there was a chance. Neil Armstrong would have liked
better than fifty-fifty odds, but he thought it was a chance worth taking.
Life is a risk, a chance. Launching a rocket, exploring new land, establishing a new home for yourself,
starting a new job, applying to college, asking a girl out, getting out of bed in the morning.
All of these things are risky. None of them are “safe.” That rocket did not blow up because it was a
private company that launched it, nor because it used a forty-year-old Russian rocket motor, nor
because it was launched in Virginia instead of Florida. It blew up because sometimes, when you
decide that the reward is worth the risk, you take a chance. Sometimes it explodes.
Sometimes she says yes. You never know until you ask. What are you waiting for?