The cause of Tuesday's Antares 130 launch failure is not known. The builder and owner of the rocket, Orbital ATK, will lead an investigation of the accident, and it will be assisted by NASA and the FAA. All that is known for sure at this point was tweeted by Orbital ATK: "There has been a vehicle anomaly. The vehicle suffered a catastrophic failure." Uh, yeah. That much seems painfully self-evident.
If you want a good example of what's wrong with the US space program, take a good look at the Space Launch System rocket NASA is developing. In 2011, NASA estimated the cost of developing this human-rated, heavy-lift vehicle, along with the Orion crew capsule and launch facility upgrades, at $18 billion through 2017. The latest estimate by NASA pegs the development cost for SLS/Orion at between $19 billion and $22 billion through 2021. Almost everyone in the space industry understands that this is an extremely disingenuous low-ball estimate.
The two Commercial Crew Transportation Capability (CCtCap) contracts awarded to Boeing and SpaceX by NASA on September 16 should come as no big surprise to anyone familiar with both the agency's conservative culture and its relatively small annual budget of just under $18 billion. Boeing received $4.2 billion to continue with development of its human-rated system based on the Atlas V rocket and CST-100 capsule, while SpaceX got $2.6 billion to continue work on its Falcon 9 v1.1 rocket and Dragon V2 combo.
Last week, I wrote about Boeing's decision to ramp up 737 output to 52 per month in 2018. I sounded a cautionary note about long-term overcapacity, particularly if Airbus matches Boeing. But I'm starting to think there's no reason to worry; this announcement is far from certain to be executed. Consider the factors that could derail the ramp up: First, we're talking about 2018. A lot can happen in four years. Over the past five years, single aisle production has been massively increased by a combination of three factors: low interest rates, expensive fuel (which makes new jets more appealing than keeping or buying cheap older ones), and fast growth in emerging markets (primarily the BRICs).
In the words of Geddy Lee (of the progressive rock band Rush, if you didn't listen to FM radio in the '70s and '80s), "If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice." This certainly applies to the Canadian government's latest move with its long-awaited and controversial fighter buy. The government's decision to kick the country's next fighter purchase down the road actually guarantees the outcome the Harper government wants.
Boeing recently decided to move the majority of its defense services and support work out of Seattle. The primary goal was to cut expenses; Seattle is a high-cost area, and the jobs will go to cheaper St. Louis and Oklahoma City. The move also reinforces Boeing's industrial footprint and political presence outside of Washington state. Boeing Defense, Space & Security (BDS) CEO Chris Chadwick termed the moves "necessary if we are going to differentiate ourselves from competitors and stay ahead of a rapidly changing global defense environment."
The planned merger of the defense and space portions of ATK with Orbital Sciences will create a $4.5 billion company. Orbital and ATK's managements maintain that they are creating a much stronger company that will benefit from accelerated growth. In space, Orbital will bring its systems integration capabilities and ATK will provide its techologies. The result will be a much larger space company. Orbital's space work is about $1.5 billion annually, with ATK's space work totaling $1.2 billion.
I don't want to make a documentary. I want to make a documentary about the making of a documentary. This meta concept seems appropriate after watching Al Jazeera's Broken Dreams. You can find it at www.aljazeera.com/investigations/boeing787. I make a few appearances, but that's why DVRs have fast-forward buttons. The documentary does not make a persuasive case against the 787 and is somewhat sensationalist. But it also tells us a lot about the state of things at Boeing. Boeing management's actions have produced a deeply angry work force. This documentary depicts some of the damage from that anger, and there's likely more blowback to come.