NASA Contractor Bids ‘Do Svidaniya’ to Soviet-Era Rocket Engine
When Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket blew up shortly after liftoff last week, observers were quick to blame the Cold War-era Soviet rocket engine that powered the space craft. Now, the Virginia-based company says it’s ditching the engine, the NK-33, and moving forward on upgrading the rocket’s propulsion system. According to the company, its engineers believe ...
When Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket blew up shortly after liftoff last week, observers were quick to blame the Cold War-era Soviet rocket engine that powered the space craft. Now, the Virginia-based company says it's ditching the engine, the NK-33, and moving forward on upgrading the rocket's propulsion system.
When Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket blew up shortly after liftoff last week, observers were quick to blame the Cold War-era Soviet rocket engine that powered the space craft. Now, the Virginia-based company says it’s ditching the engine, the NK-33, and moving forward on upgrading the rocket’s propulsion system.
According to the company, its engineers believe that the rocket engine, which is also known as the AJ26, was likely responsible for the crash. "Preliminary evidence and analysis conducted to date points to a probable turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage one main engines," Orbital said in a statement. "As a result, the use of these engines for the Antares vehicle likely will be discontinued."
Prior to last week’s accident, Orbital — which is trying to claim a piece of the rapidly-expanding commercial space industry — had already been planning to upgrade the rocket’s engine, and it is now accelerating that effort. Barron Beneski, a spokesman for Orbital, said that the company plans to have that rocket up and running by 2016. The company has been hired by NASA to deliver supplies to the International Space Station.
"This is not a knee-jerk reaction to what happened last week," Beneski said.
For "competitive reasons," Beneski said he could not disclose what engine the company plans to use for the Antares.
In the interim, he said the company plans to continue making deliveries to the ISS by subcontracting with another rocket provider. "Orbital is taking decisive action to fulfill our commitments to NASA in support of safe and productive operations of the Space Station," the company’s chairman and CEO, David Thompson, said in a statement. While last week’s Antares failure was very disappointing to all of us, the company is already implementing a contingency plan to overcome this setback.
The engine currently in use on the Antares, the NK-33, has a storied history. It was intended for use on the Soviet Union’s doomed project to send a man to the moon. But that rocket, the N-1, was never perfected by Soviet designers and repeatedly blew up after takeoff. The engines built for the project were packed away in a Russian warehouse and discovered by American rocket scientists after the fall of the Soviet Union.
The NK-33 is remarkable in that it uses an innovative design that more than 40 years after its creation can compete with rocket engines designed and built today. For a company like Orbital Sciences, the use of such an engine seemed to provide a cost-effective entry into the world of heavy-lift rockets without having to embark on the risky and expensive path of having to design a proprietary engine.
But as last week’s accident illustrated, the use of decades-old Soviet technology poses its own risks. The use of such technology has served as fodder for criticism from Orbital’s most prominent competitor. "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," Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX, told Wired in 2012. "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."
Suffice to say, Orbital probably won’t be going with another Soviet engine.
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