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Bad Day at Vandenberg

Ron Grabe, launch system manager for Orbital Sciences, didn't try to sugar-coat the news. "Tonight we're all pretty devastated," he said during a predawn press briefing at Vandenberg AFB today.Orbital's Taurus XL rocket had just dumped NASA's $424 million Glory climate satellite into the Pacific oc...

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Ron Grabe, launch system manager for Orbital Sciences, didn't try to sugar-coat the news. "Tonight we're all pretty devastated," he said during a predawn press briefing at Vandenberg AFB today.

Orbital's Taurus XL rocket had just dumped NASA's $424 million Glory climate satellite into the Pacific ocean. What's worse, it was the same rocket that destroyed another NASA spacecraft, the $273 million Orbiting Carbon Observatory, in 2009 —and for the very same reason. In both cases, the fairing that protects the satellite during its climb through the atmosphere failed to separate properly, which dragged on the vehicle and kept it from reaching orbit.

After the OCO failure, Orbital spent two years redesigning and testing the fairing separation system, substituting a different mechanism used on the company's Minotaur 4 rocket. That design flew three times successfully in the last year, and, according to Grabe, "we really went into flight feeling confident that we had nailed the fairing issue."

Now Orbital goes back to the drawing board to try to figure out what happened. NASA has contracted for another Taurus XL to launch a replacement for OCO in 2013. And the space agency must surely be even more nervous that it was about the company's new Taurus 2 rocket, which is scheduled to lift off later this year with the (also new) Cygnus cargo vehicle, designed to deliver supplies to the space station.

Meanwhile, scientists will be scrambling to find a way to continue long-term monitoring of the total amount of solar radiation reaching Earth, a key bit of basic data for climate change studies. An instrument onboard the eight-year old SORCE satellite currently supplies that information. Glory was carrying its replacement.

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