Russian Rocket Engines Blamed for Antares Explosion; Russian Sales Girls Blamed for Bonehead Decision to Use Russian Engines

First appeared at PoliNation.
This is not actually satire. Orbital Sciences Corp has determined that the cause of their Antares rocket explosion last week is closely tied to the turbo pumps in the refurbished 1960-vintage Russian AJ26 rocket engines used on the Antares vehicle.  As a result, they made a statement, reported in the Washington Times, that they would “likely” end use of the engines in their unmanned rockets currently used to resupply the International Space Station.

The decision to use the Russian engines in the first place has been continually controversial and marked by other failures.  In a 2012 interview, competitor Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, mocked the use of the old engine technology, calling it the “punch line to a joke.”  Orbital Sciences, however, is not the only American launch vehicle company to resort to using Russian rocket engines.  The United Launch Alliance’s workhorse rocket, the Atlas V, was designed from the ground up to specifically use Russian RD-180 engines, and that rocket will likely carry crews of astronauts.

Gross Mismanagement of American Rocket Science Beginning to Show?
The fact that so many U.S. launch programs have resorted to Russian engine technology is a giant red flag in an aerospace industry struggling to shrug off recent failures, political setbacks and accusations about the premature retirement of the Space Shuttle Program. The loss of the Shuttle, in particular, has forced the U.S. to bear the humiliation of being dependent on Russian launch vehicles for rides to the Space Station at a geopolitically hostile time.

The headline’s suggestion that Russian sales girls are responsible for these problems is tongue-in-cheek, of course, though vodka might have been a factor. I (the author) have worked on the Atlas V program alongside Russian rocket engineers, and I greatly admired their professionalism and skill. They are geniuses, every one. But aside from that, I don’t know how to explain the strategically inexcusable decisions that have made U.S. access to space totally dependent on Russian cooperation. This seemed a mistake when the first moves were being made in the 1990s, and it seems the full weight of those mistakes are becoming clear now. The U.S. is simply unprepared to supply all the affordable, dependable rocket engines it now needs, and that is due to catastrophic mismanagement and a drought of foresight. Fixing that will take some time.


About GruntOfMonteCristo

Fearless and Devout Catholic Christian First, Loving Husband and Father Second, Pissed-Off Patriot Third, Rocket Engineer Dork Last.
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12 Responses to Russian Rocket Engines Blamed for Antares Explosion; Russian Sales Girls Blamed for Bonehead Decision to Use Russian Engines

  1. yoni says:

    I have been suggesting for sometime that what we should have done is find a replacement for the RCC tiles that broke. We knew that they were fragile from the first, as well as the most sensitive.

    I still remember reading about the “character building discovery” after the 81 launch of STS-1 Colombia which indicated that large numbers of the black tiles had fallen off. I remember seeing the picture, and thinking “WHAT?”

    That’s not to mention the “money/weight saving” decision to reduce the safety features on the external tank like 20 years ago. (WTF?)

    oh, and stop prohibiting young tallent from finishing college early. Then we might have a few more academics still interested in making 1st rate rocket engines.

      • yoni says:

        there are many times I wish I had a place on the planning boards at nasa.
        like, how can it be that we are still insisting on launching a new spacecraft every time?! build a big one in orbit, and go back and forth! every stupid pound to orbit costs a fortune

      • I hear you there. For so many decades now, NASA seems doomed to make terrible decisions that saddle us with worse launch capability and fewer options than we had in the 1960s. It’s a sad joke, unfortunately. Then, every few years, they seek even deeper humiliation by commissioning studies where experts and enthusiasts are asked for input on what NASA should change. The response is deafening, but it’s always ignored.

        How are things in Israel, BTW? Work going ok?

  2. yoni says:

    We still haven’t solved the earth to orbit equation and we’re still humiliating ourselves with talk of going to mars! Although I thought that perhaps something equivalent to the emauls solution might yield some help, at least that solves the inertia problem and gets you a positive vertical vector without having to do it with precious on-board supplies (plus the tankage to hold them). I was thinking finding a mountain at a good latitude and blasting a large ten thousand foot shaft in it, and lining it with linear electric motors.
    Finishing up rabbinical studies, looking for work, preferably not as a rabbi, Polyticks are too bad right now, and from a historical perspective I don’t expect them to get better for a couple of hundred years.
    The only reason I considered going into the rabbinate here is because I’m not so willing to sit idly by while idiots butcher the religion Mao style, but at this point I’m just about to say “let them commit suicide”. More food for the rest of us and easier to pick up the pieces after they’re gone than convince a paranoid schizophrenic that there is nothing to fear and that his enemy has, in-fact, been dead for a hundred and fifty years, and decomposed for 60; it wouldn’t even be remembered if they didn’t keep obsessively exhuming the grave for the sake of reinforcing their irrational paranoia.

    • Forgive me, Yoni, but your wife is so knowledgeable that I thought this might be her commenting about space stuff! I didn’t realize at first that it was you. Welcome!

      I completely agree about our failure to master the baby steps before reaching out to Mars. I’m not even sure Mars is a productive target for human colonizing, but people have their peculiar dreams. My job is dominated by Mars for that reason, driven by politics, but I’d much rather see us doing regular lunar flights and better orbital work. For solving the getting-to-orbit problem, your “rail gun” idea is an excellent one.

      Sorry to hear about the rabbinical work not turning out as hoped. I’m a little envious of you being where you are, actually. It seems, sometimes, that Israel is one of the only places on the globe with clear vision about the state of the world, but I’m sure the challenges are enormous.

      About the internal fighting in the religious leadership, I certainly believe you. None of us seem free of that, I’m afraid. I’m not following the specifics, though. What is the 150yo dead enemy that’s feared? Just curious.

      • yoni says:

        Not to mention you have to go somewhere where you can expect to replenish 1 water, 2 fuel (ion engines and nuclear engines don’t exempt you from having something to spew out the back your craft. Doesn’t much matter what, as long as it’s portable, easily expandable, and readily available) . We could probably better colonize the moon, at least earth is close by, but good luck growing your own food without excess carbon oxygen and hydrogen. Mars is a little low on the latter, plus the lack of a magnetic field is going to make the colonists sitting ducks for solar flares.(don’t pretend our presidents have had brains for the past 14 years. One thing you could say for clinton was he had one, without getting into a debate about if he used it well.)

        One of the beauties of railgun work is that the navy just did the preliminary work, and the airforce and navy would probably be more than happy to join in a three way research project to develop really powerful ones.

        I’d still love working on the mars project, as pointless as it is. I’m pretty sure it’s going to get canceled sometime though. That’s the pattern with ambitious projects. The glory of apollo was noone cared about getting there the smart way, they just cared about showing off our rockets where better than the russian ones. (saturn five being, essentialy, a wastefully big (and accurate) human guided ICBM) it was largely a stunt. (and what a stunt it was, and since they developed the tech for it, we’re still reaping the benefits from the stunt. Not like the cost effective garbage that wont even give us that.)

        The israeli left is something like the tea party. Both of think that the solution to everyproblem is that they just have to be crazier, and that the only reason anyone wouldn’t vote for them is because they’re not crazy enough. A recent poll here showed that over 70% of the population now leans right. The leftist parties are right now claiming that there is no doubt that they will control the next government, despite the fact that enough parties wont talk to each other than their chances are about as great as moses coming back to life today and arranging a communal whipping and execution for everyone who ever miss-used his book. (which is about equal to the sun rising in the west. (I almost wrote east, oops). Possible, remotely, but I would bet on it regardless of the odds.

        and it isn’t just internal fighting in religious leadership. seculars do it just as much. People like to fight. That “enemy” is “reform” judaism. Based on the testimonials I’ve heard, the only reason why reform even still exists is because the ultra orthodox are so afraid of it that they keep on reinforcing the feeling that they care more about reform being wrong than taking care of the flock. If you understand my meaning. It really offends me.

      • I think I do understand your meaning. Some would say that the best way to defeat an enemy is to merely succeed – to do your job well. “Taking care of the flock,” as you say. But there are always those who would rather fight an imbecilic, misguided and ineffective enemy head on. it’s a poor choice. Better to ignore their ranting and let them fail.

        But it’s complicated. As conservatives have seen in America, it’s often not good enough to merely succeed. By every measure, everyone is objectively better off under conservatives than liberal politicians. All our cities dominated by Democrat machines lay in ruins. But it doesn’t matter if the electorate is too irrational to notice. At least yours seems more clear-headed than ours. At least you have that going for you.

  3. yoni says:

    (as an addendum) I wonder if graphene will solve the problem of oxygen being able to penetrate steel in vacum conditions.

      • yoni says:

        I knew of it but didn’t know anything till recently. I’ve always wondered if we could restart the martian dynamo by crashing Ceres into it. (IIRC the martian mantle is pretty much solidified, we need to apply a great deal of heat to it, and some extra gravity wouldn’t hurt) Then crash as many comets as we can into it to reapply the water base, and wait for things to stabilize again.

        But that’s a half scifi experimental confirmation of the origin of Earth’s atmosphere and my own pet hypotheses that in order to maintain a planetary dynamo you need periodic large asteroid collisions to maintain internal heat. (I wonder if the formation of our moon, which I remember being by a similar process, is one of the things which distinguished us from Venus and Mars. Assuming that all three started with a similar mix)

        But that’s just far out fun. Applying that much energy to deorbit ceres into mars’ gravitational influence would be quite a trick.

      • yoni says:

        and regarding your comment above about conservatives, I would accuse them of doing the same thing that the liberals are doing. The only periods that I can see that suffered from unanimously recognized prosperity were those in which liberal and conservative sides worked together for a bipartisan compromise. That works. Otherwise both sides ruin, and Regen is an excellent example of that (and the fact that neocons respect him so much is a large part of the problem) Obama care may not be good, but the conservatives fighting it tooth and nail are more responsible for it’s fail than anything else. I might suggest that they offer a counter “charter” proposal for health care, with a single payer multiple provider system where every company competes for government dollars by trying to attract the largest customer base. (check out israel’s national insurance system) and thus go a lot of proposals, but suggesting that the conservatives are any better rings hollow to me.

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