A History of Launch Failures: “Not Because They are Easy, but Because They are Hard”

Over the 50-plus years since President John F. Kennedy’s Rice University speech, spaceflight has proven to be hard. It doesn’t take much to wreck a good day to fly.

Befitting a Halloween story, rocket launches, orbital insertions, and landings are what make for sleepless nights. These make-or-break events of space missions can be things that go bump in the night: sometimes you get second chances and sometimes not. Here’s a look at some of the past mission failures that occurred at launch. Consider this a first installment in an ongoing series of articles – “Not Because They Are Easy.”

A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)
A still image from one of several videos of the ill-fated Antares launch of October 28, 2014, taken by engineers at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, Wallops, VA. (Credit: NASA)

The evening of October 28, 2014, was another of those hard moments in the quest to explore and expand humanity’s presence in space. Ten years ago, Orbital Sciences Corporation sought an engine to fit performance requirements for a new launch vehicle. Their choice was a Soviet-era liquid fuel engine, one considered cost-effective, meeting requirements, and proving good margins for performance and safety. The failure of the Antares rocket this week could be due to a flaw in the AJ-26 or it could be from a myriad of other rocket parts. Was it decisions inside NASA that cancelled or delayed engine development programs and led OSC and Lockheed-Martin to choose “made in Russia” rather than America?

Here are other unmanned launch failures of the past 25 years:

Falcon 1, Flight 2, March 21, 2007. Fairings are hard. There are fairings that surround the upper stage engines and a fairing covering payloads.  Fairings must not only separate but also not cause collateral damage. The second flight of the Falcon 1 is an example of a 1st stage separation and fairing that swiped the second stage nozzle. Later, overcompensation by the control system traceable to the staging led to loss of attitude control; however, the launch achieved most of its goals and the mission was considered a success. (View: 3:35)

Proton M Launch, Baikonur Aerodrome, July 2, 2013. The Proton M is the Russian Space program’s workhorse for unmanned payloads. On this day, the Navigation, Guidance, and Control System failed moments after launch. Angular velocity sensors of the guidance control system were installed backwards. Fortunately, the Proton M veered away from its launch pad sparing it damage.

Ariane V Maiden Flight, June 4, 1996. The Ariane V was carrying an ambitious ESA mission called Cluster – a set of four satellites to fly in tetrahedral formation to study dynamic phenomena in the Earth’s magnetosphere. The ESA launch vehicle reused flight software from the successful Ariane IV. Due to differences in the flight path of the Ariane V, data processing led to a data overflow – a 64 floating point variable overflowing a 16 bit integer. The fault remained undetected and flight control reacted in error. The vehicle veered off-course, the structure was stressed and disintegrated 37 seconds into flight. Fallout from the explosion caused scientists and engineers to don protective gas masks. (View: 0:50)

Delta II, January 17, 1997. The Delta II is one of the most successful rockets in the history of space flight, but not on this day. Varied configurations change up the number of solid rocket motors strapped to the first stage. The US Air Force satellite GPS IIR-1 was to be lifted to Earth orbit, but a Castor 4A solid rocket booster failed seconds after launch. A hairline fracture in the rocket casing was the fault. Both unspent liquid and solid fuel rained down on the Cape, destroying launch equipment, buildings, and even parked automobiles. This is one of the most well documented launch failures in history.

Compilation of Early Launch Failures. Beginning with several of the early failures of Von Braun’s V2, this video compiles many failures over a 70 year period. The early US space program endured multiple launch failures as they worked at a breakneck speed to catch up with the Soviets after Sputnik. NASA did not yet exist. The Air Force and Army had competing designs, and it was the Army with the German rocket scientists, including Von Braun, that launched the Juno 1 rocket carrying Explorer 1 on January 31, 1958.

One must always realize that while spectacular to launch viewers, a rocket launch has involved years of development, lessons learned, and multiple revisions. The payloads carried involve many hundreds of thousands of work-hours. Launch vehicle and payloads become quite personal. NASA and ESA have offered grief counseling to their engineers after failures.

We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard, because that goal will serve to organize and measure the best of our energies and skills, because that challenge is one that we are willing to accept, one we are unwilling to postpone, and one which we intend to win, and the others, too.

Kennedy’s Rice University Speech, September 12, 1962

ESA Marks 50 Years of Cooperative Space Innovation

In 1964 the European Launcher Development Organisation (ELDO) and the European Space Research Organisation (ESRO) were founded, on February 29 and March 20 respectively, marking the beginning of Europe as a major space power and player in the new international venture to explore beyond our planet. A decade later these two entities merged to become ESA, and the rest, as it’s said, is history.

The video above commemorates ESA’s service to the cooperation and innovation of European nations in space, and indeed the entire world with many of the far-reaching exploration missions its member states have developed, launched and maintained. From advanced communications and observational satellites to its many missions exploring the worlds of the Solar System to capturing the light from the beginning of the Universe, ELDO, ESRO, and ESA have pushed the boundaries of science and technology in space for half a century… and are inspiring the next generation to continue exploring into the decades ahead. So happy anniversary, ESA — I can only imagine what we might be looking back on in another 50 years!

Source: ESA. See more key dates from ESA’s history here

Heavy-Lift Rocket Launch Seen from Space

We all know what a big rocket launch looks like from the ground, but this is what it looks like from above the ground — 260 miles above the ground! The photo above was captured from the Space Station earlier today by NASA astronaut Rick Mastracchio, and it shows the contrail from a heavy-lift Ariane 5 that had just launched from ESA’s spaceport on the French Guiana coast: flight VA217, Arianespace’s milestone 250th launch carrying the ABS-2 and Athena-Fidus satellites into orbit.

Rick shared his view on Twitter with his nearly 39,000 followers, and now less than an hour later, we’re sharing it here. (Isn’t technology wonderful?)

For a more “natural” look, here it is reversed:

Rick Mastracchio's photo of the Ariane 5 launch, rotated 180 degrees.
Rick Mastracchio’s photo of the Ariane 5 launch, rotated 180 degrees.

The ISS was in the process of passing over Costa Rica when the image was taken. The rocket launched from Kourou, French Guiana — about 2,175 miles (3,500 km) away. What a view!

For this and more great images from orbit follow Rick on Twitter @AstroRM.

Watch a video of the VA217 launch below:

The 250th launch performed by Arianespace lifted off from ESA’s spaceport in French Guiana, delivering a dual-satellite payload into geostationary transfer orbit: ABS-2 for global satellite operator ABS, and Athena-Fidus for the defense/homeland security needs of France and Italy. The flight lasted just over 32 minutes. (Source)

First-Ever Video of an ATV Vehicle Into Orbit!

Yesterday, June 5, the European Space Agency launched their ATV-4 Albert Einstein cargo vessel from their spaceport in French Guiana. Liftoff occurred at 5:52 p.m. EDT (2152 GMT), and in addition to over 7 tons of supplies for the ISS a special payload was also included: the DLR-developed STEREX experiment, which has four cameras attached to the Ariane 5ES rocket providing a continuous 3D view of the mission, from liftoff to separation to orbit and, eventually, docking to the Station on June 15.

The dramatic video above is the first-ever of an ATV vehicle going into free-flight orbit — check it out!

“The highlight of the STEREX deployment will be observing the settling of ATV-4 in orbit. STEREX for this event will include three-dimensional video sequences to study the dynamic behavior of the spacecraft during the separation phase. This opens up for the ATV project engineers an entirely new way to monitor the success of their work and also to gain important new experiences for the future.”DLR blog (translated)

If you look along the horizon at around 5:20, you can make out the plume from the launch.

At 20,190 kg (44, 511 lbs) ATV Albert Einstein is the heaviest spacecraft ever launched by Ariane. Read more here.

(HT to Daniel Scuka at ESA.)

New Plans for ESA’s Experimental Re-entry Vehicle

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ESA and Arianespace have signed a contract planning the launch of ESA’s new IXV (Intermediate eXperimental Vehicle) on Europe’s new Vega Rocket in 2014. Vega is Europe’s new small launch system and it is designed to complement the heavy Ariane 5 and medium Soyuz Rocket systems launched from French Guiana.

The small rocket is capable of a wide range of payloads up to 1.5 tonnes, compared to Ariane 5 which can lift 20 tonnes, making it especially suitable for the commercial space market. The Vega Rocket will launch the IXV into a suborbital trajectory from Europe’s Spaceport in French Guiana, IXV will then return to Earth as if from a low-orbit mission, to test and qualify new critical technologies for future re-entry vehicles.

Vega Rocket Credit: Arianespace

The IXV will reach a velocity of 7.5km/s at an altitude of around 450km and then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere gathering data about its flight. The vehicle will encounter hypersonic and supersonic speeds and will be controlled with complex avionics, thrusters and flaps.

Once the vehicle’s speed has been reduced enough, it will deploy a parachute, descend and land safely in the Pacific Ocean.

This flight will record data for the next five VERTA missions (Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment – Programme), which will demonstrate the systems re-usable versatility.

Two launches a year are planned for the new programme and construction of infrastructure including mission control and communications networks is currently underway.

Development and completion of the design, manufacturing and assembly is now underway for a flight window between January and September 2014.

VERTA (Vega Research and Technology Accompaniment – Programme) Credit: Arianespace

Source: ESA