Earlier this week -- Tuesday night to be precise -- an Antares rocket built by Orbital Sciences (OA), carrying a Cygnus space capsule loaded with supplies destined for the astronauts aboard the International Space Station, exploded just seconds after liftoff. Fire rained down across the lower third of Wallops Island, from which the rocket was launched.
This is not good news for Orbital Sciences
Indeed, if you count the May incident in which a refurbished Russian engine apparently exploded during testing at a space center in Mississippi, Orbital has now suffered two catastrophic failures of its rockets in less than six months.
And not just Orbital.
In August, Orbital rival SpaceX suffered a catastrophic failure of its own, when a blocked sensor port aboard an experimental Falcon 9R "reusable" rocket triggered the spacecraft's automatic self-destruct system, exploding the rocket midflight. It all gets an investor to wondering ...
Why is it that all of a sudden, every rocket America tries to launch into space seems to explode before it gets there?
Space race -- no. More like space races.
To answer this question, we need a bit of background first. Along with Orbital, SpaceX holds a NASA Commercial Resupply Services contract to ship supplies to the International Space Station. Along with Boeing (BA -1.61%), SpaceX also recently won a part in the NASA mission to resume sending astronauts to ISS aboard U.S.-built rockets. (Although a third firm, Sierra Nevada, is disputing these awards).
In each case, these contracts are aimed at breaking the monopoly that Russia holds over missions to ISS -- a monopoly it's held ever since the U.S. terminated the Space Shuttle program, and one that currently costs NASA $70.7 million every time it wants to send an astronaut into space.
To an extent, the contracts also aim to midwife a rebirth of America's homegrown space industry. By diverting NASA dollars to private contractors, the government is subsidizing development of new space technologies. The hope is that this will reduce the cost of space exploration, and also reduce America's reliance on Russia as a source of RD-180 rockets (such as power the Lockheed Martin (LMT -0.27%) Atlas V rocket) and also NK-33 rockets -- which powered Tuesday's ill-fated Orbital flight.
Damned if they do, damned if they don't
SpaceX's mishap with its Falcon 9R showed how problems can arise when companies work at breakneck speed to develop new technologies. But as Tuesday's disaster over Wallops showed, continuing to operate a jury-rigged national space program dependent on decades-old Soviet technology is also not without risk.
SpaceX's Musk has mocked Orbital's Antares rocket in particular as sounding like "the punch line to a joke." Powered by "Russian rocket engines that were made in the '60s," Musk says the Antares relies on technology that was "packed away in Siberia somewhere" for the past 50 years. As in, this is not just "old technology" that Orbital is using to power its rockets. These are literally decades-old rocket engines -- refurbished, granted -- but then put into use in hopes that everything will still work out all right.
Sometimes, they don't.
The upshot for investors -- and for taxpayers
When you get right down to it, I think the answer to why we've seen so many rocket blow-ups happen in recent months is this: We're dealing here with science experiments that involve forcing thousands of gallons of pressurized gases and kerosene into metal tubes -- and then setting them on fire. When you think about it, the risks of unfortunate outcomes from such exercises seem obvious.
But given that "mishaps" can happen whether we use tried-and-true (but old) Russian rocket technology, or try to develop new technologies of our own, I'm inclined to prefer spending taxpayer dollars on developing our own tech. Develop it and test it rigorously, of course -- as SpaceX was doing when its Falcon 9R exploded. But spend the money developing homegrown American space technologies.
That seems to me one of the best uses of American taxpayer dollars. And as an investor, unable to invest in such Russian operations as the "Kuznetsov Design Bureau" or "NP Energomash," I'm much more interested in seeing NASA fund work by U.S. space tech companies such as Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Orbital Sciences (and its soon-to-be-partner, ATK (NYSE: ATK)) -- and eventually, with any luck, SpaceX as well.
These are the space tech companies of the future. These are the ones I want to invest in, in hopes that one day they'll "blow up" -- in a good way.