(*) New: Scroll down to read Planetary Resources’ response to this article.
When an unmanned SpaceX rocket carrying cargo to the International Space Station disintegrated over the Florida coast just two minutes after lift-off Sunday, the pieces not only fell on billionaire Elon Musk’s aerospace venture image, but they may have also clouded the rising asteroid mining sector’s dreams.
Musk has shaken the global launch business in recent years by showing it can successfully fly rockets at a fraction of the price of other providers. And cheap, reusable rockets are key to making asteroid mining feasible.
However, yesterday’s fiasco was the third major failure for America’s commercial space industry in less than a year.
“There was an overpressure event in the upper stage liquid oxygen tank,” Musk Tweeted. “That’s all we can say with confidence right now. Will have more to say following a thorough” analysis.
According to William Gerstenmaier, a NASA associate administrator, the botched launch shows the challenges facing engineering and space flight in general.
“We expected … we would lose some vehicles,” Gerstenmaier said at the news conference. “I didn’t think we’d lose them all in a one-year time frame, but we have.”
Planetary Resources, the U.S.-based start-up aiming to mine asteroids, lost its first satellite after an Orbital Antares rocket blew up in October only six seconds after take-off. Since April, however, the asteroid miner’s device has been stationed at the International Space Station and will be deployed in the coming weeks. A few days later a Russian Progress 59 spun out of control after reaching orbit. The Orbital failure raised questions about NASA’s bold plan to outsource the cargo resupply mission to contractors in the wake of the space shuttle retirement in 2011.
“We are disappointed in the loss of the latest SpaceX cargo resupply mission to the International Space Station,” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said in a statement. “However, the astronauts are safe aboard the station and have sufficient supplies for the next several months. We will work closely with SpaceX to understand what happened, fix the problem and return to flight. The commercial cargo program was designed to accommodate loss of cargo vehicles.”
SpaceX, short for Space Exploration Technologies Corp., has also been lobbying for the opportunity to launch the Pentagon’s spy satellites and other crucial spacecraft.
(*) Chris Lewicki, President and Chief Engineer of Planetary Resources, sent us the following statement:
Although Planetary Resources, Inc. did not have payload on the failed CRS-7 mission to the International Space Station, we send our support to the Space X team and are confident they will recover service quickly. The suggestion that this incident is a blow to the asteroid mining industry is simply inaccurate. There are many commercial providers, and the industry will have launch failures from time to time. We have full confidence in all of the launch providers and none of the recent set-backs have an impact on Planetary Resources’ technology development. As an industry, we’re nimble, we plan to accommodate failures in order to build for success.