The burgeoning field of commercial spaceflight suffered two serious blows this week.
The bad news began on Tuesday (Oct. 28), when Orbital Sciences Corp.'s Antares rocket exploded just seconds after blasting off on an unmanned cargo mission to the International Space Station for NASA. Then, on Friday (Oct. 31), Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo crashed during a test flight; one of the two pilots aboard was killed and the other injured, apparently seriously.
The causes of the two accidents are unclear at the moment, and so are the consequences. But the fallout could be huge for Orbital Sciences, Virgin Galactic and the entire private spaceflight industry, which has been building up some serious momentum over the past several years. [Photos: SpaceShipTwo's Test Flights]
Virginia-based Orbital Sciences holds a $1.9 billion contract with NASA to make eight robotic cargo runs to the space station using Antares and the company's Cygnus spacecraft. Orbital had completed two such missions without incident before Tuesday's rocket explosion.
Another company, California-based SpaceX, also signed a deal to ferry cargo to the space station for NASA. The agency is paying SpaceX $1.6 billion to fly 12 unmanned supply missions to the orbiting lab using the firm's Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket. So far, SpaceX has flown four of these missions, and all have been successful.
NASA is also looking to the private sector to take astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit. Last month, the agency awarded SpaceX and Boeing multibillion-dollar contracts to continue developing their crewed vehicles — a manned version of Dragon in SpaceX's case and a capsule called the CST-100 for Boeing.
NASA officials hope at least one of these spaceships is up and running by 2017. The agency has been dependent on Russian Soyuz spacecraft to ferry American astronauts to and from the space station since 2011, when NASA's space shuttle fleet retired.
NASA officials expressed confidence in Orbital Sciences after Tuesday's launch mishap, citing the company's two successful supply missions to the space station. The agency also seemed to affirm its commitment to private cargo delivery.
"Launching rockets is an incredibly difficult undertaking, and we learn from each success and each setback," Bill Gerstenmaier, head of NASA's Human Exploration and Operations Directorate, said in a statement Tuesday. "Today's launch attempt will not deter us from our work to expand our already successful capability to launch cargo from American shores to the International Space Station."
Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites — the company that built the six-passenger, two-pilot SpaceShipTwo — are dealing with a tragedy that claimed a life.
Virgin Galactic founder Sir Richard Branson has previously expressed hope that commercial operations of SpaceShipTwo will begin sometime in 2015. Friday's crash, which occurred during the suborbital space plane's fourth rocket-powered flight and 55th overall test flight, will almost certainly push that timeline back.
But Virgin Galactic representatives vowed that they will continue their work to get SpaceShipTwo up and running. And the entire industry will bounce back as well, said Stuart Witt, CEO of Mojave Air and Space Port in California, which hosts SpaceShipTwo's test flights.
"It hasn't been an easy week. It's certainly been a challenge," Witt said during a post-crash news conference Friday. "But where I'm from, this is where you find out your true character."