A Bad Week for Commercial Spaceflight

The US commercial space industry did not fare well last week. Two accidents on 28th and 31st October highlight the risks, costs, and difficulties of spaceflight—as well as pointing to potential setbacks for commercial spaceflight. (If you’re interested, other news outlets have commented on these issues as well, such as here and here and here.) Pardon the self-promotion, but you can check out our discussion with Ken Kremer on a Weekly Space Hangout with Universe Today on the 31st for more information.

Orbital Sciences’ Antares rocket

First, on Tuesday (the 28th), an unmanned 13-story rocket designed by Orbital Sciences Corp. exploded a few seconds after liftoff off the coast of Virginia at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility. It carried a Cygnus capsule with more than 5,000 pounds (2,300 kg) of hundreds of millions of dollars of supplies and equipment, as well as school students’ science experiments. It was bound for the International Space Station (ISS) and was the first time a resupply mission contracted by NASA to a private company failed. Fortunately, no one was hurt. Though the flight facility is designed to handle explosion and fire, there was significant damage to the launch infrastructure.

Journalists were pretty close to the launch zone, and this video (tweeted by Pamela Gay) shows the launch, explosion, and fleeing from the potentially dangerous area (see also videos at LA Times):

It will take time to recover from this. And we will have to see how much this damages Orbital Science Corp.’s reputation and NASA’s efforts to outsource orbital flights. Four previous Antares flights, including three to the station, had launched successfully, and five resupply flights remain in the company’s multi-billion dollar contract, the next one being scheduled for April. This likely will be delayed though, and according to Orbital’s press release, they will implement a propulsion system upgrade previously planned for 2016. The loss of this supply vessel doesn’t pose an immediate problem for the ISS’s crew, which includes two from NASA, one from the European Space Agency (ESA), and three Russians. The second US supply line to the ISS is with Space Exploration Technologies (SpaceX), which has its next launch planned for 9th December. Although the ISS crew and their missions are not in any danger, this loss significantly affects Orbital Sciences, and more work and investment will be needed to proceed.

NASA held a press conference the same day as the accident, and their investigation into the cause(s) of the explosion and failed launch continues. These space-bound rockets have many components—many things that could go wrong—and there is considerable debris to examine, so it could take awhile. It’s not clear whether extra weight and length were factors in the accident, for example. A turbopump-related failure in one of the two Aerojet Rocketdyne AJ26 stage-one engines might have been the culprit. These liquid oxygen and kerosene fueled engines, produced during the Soviet era in Russia (with modifications), likely will be discontinued in future Antares rockets.

Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo

And now for Act Two. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, part of a commercial space program founded by Richard Branson, suffered an “in-flight anomaly” on Halloween. It crashed midflight during testing and broke into several pieces over the Mojave Desert (north of Los Angeles, for you non-Californians). One pilot (Michael Alsbury) was killed and was unfortunately still strapped to his seat in the wreckage. The other pilot (Peter Siebold) successfully ejected at an altitude of around 50,000 feet and deployed his parachute. He was airlifted to a hospital and treated for injuries.

HIRES for web AP673441118926

After successful programs like Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo, NASA has been attempting to privatize spaceflight and redefine its missions partly because of tighter budgets over the past couple decades. According to the NY Times and Lori Garver (former deputy administrator at NASA), public funds should be focused on activities that advance technology and provide public benefits to all, like planetary science. At the same time, Garver said, the government should encourage private companies to move ahead and find innovative ways of reducing costs.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) held a press conference last Sunday with more details. A new fuel was being tested on this flight, which may or may not have been an issue, and a “feathering mechanism” might have been deployed prematurely on the spacecraft, when it was traveling beyond the speed of sound. But the investigation is still in progress, and I’ll give you more details in the near future. In any case, our thoughts are with the pilots and their families.

So what does the future hold? I’m not sure, but it looks like Orbital Sciences (and SpaceX) and Virgin Galactic will continue their spaceflight programs, as they should. Both of these accidents are unfortunate and costly—to say the least—but they should not deter us from space exploration. We have much to gain from continuing these programs. At the same time, I think we should be careful about outsourcing too much; I believe that our best prospects lie with continuing to invest funding, resources, and personnel in NASA, ESA, and other space agencies, where our scientific expertise and oversight are the greatest, and where short-term setbacks are less likely to affect our long-term objectives or derail whole exploration programs.

Journalism and Science Groups Criticize EPA’s Policy Muzzling Science Advisers

As reported by the Associated Press and The Hill, a coalition of journalism and science groups are criticizing the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to end a policy of restricting independent science advisers from contacting and communicating with media outlets, Congress, and others, without permission. The organizations include the Union of Concerned Scientists (UCS), Society of Environmental Journalists (SEJ), American Geophysical Union, Society of Professional Journalists, Society for Conservation Biology, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press. (Full disclosure: I am a UCS member and obtained some of my information from them.)


In a letter sent to the agency last week, they said that the new policy

requir[es] advisory committee members who receive requests from the public and the press ‘to refrain from responding in an individual capacity’ regarding issues before the committee. The policy requires all requests…to be routed through EPA officials. This prevents many of our nations top independent environmental science experts from sharing their expertise, unfiltered, with the public…The new policy undermines EPA’s efforts to increase transparency. It also contradicts the EPA’s new scientific integrity policy…[It] only reinforces any perception that the agency prioritizes message control over the ability of scientists who advise the agency to share their expertise with the public. On July 8, 38 journalism and good government organizations wrote the president expressing concern about ‘the stifling of free expression’ across many agencies, including the EPA.

The language of the policy is sufficiently vague that it would be easy for a scientist to interpret it such that she or he can’t speak publicly about any scientific issue under consideration. In addition, as pointed out by Andrew Rosenberg, scientists who work for the EPA also face barrier in communicating with the public.

What are the implications of this and why is it important? As the letter points out, this is clearly related to the issue of scientific integrity. We need scientists to serve on advisory committees, work with agencies and policy-makers, and speak transparently about their work and expertise, but such policies will discourage some from participating and will make the EPA less democratic. Government agencies, journalists, and the public deserve access to independent advice and free speech of scientists. (However, we scientists should be careful about speaking about issues beyond our expertise.) That way agencies can make informed decisions when developing or reforming relevant policies and regulations, and journalists and the public can form their own opinions about them as well.

In an update on the situation, the EPA Chief of Staff Gwendolyn Keyes-Fleming responded to say that their Science Advisor, Dr. Bob Kavlock, would review the matter and engage with people in the organizations involved. Let’s hope that the dialogue results in changing the policy.


Finally, in recent related news, political scientist James Doyle says that he was fired from the Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) in New Mexico after publishing a scholarly article questioning US nuclear weapons doctrine. They claimed that the article, criticizing the political theories behind the nuclear arms race and a defense of President Obama’s embrace of a nuclear weapons-free future, contained classified information. (We should note though that unfortunately the DOE’s policy on scientific integrity is much shorter and may be more restrictive than the EPA’s.) I’ll keep you updated on this situation, and time permitting, I may write about it further in another post.

The Physics of Sustainable Energy

I attended a conference this weekend called “The Physics of Sustainable Energy” at the University of California, Berkeley. It was organized by people affiliated with the American Physical Society, Energy Resources Group, and a couple other organizations. Most of the speakers and attendees (including me) seemed to be Californians. I had some interesting conversations with people and attended some great talks by experts in their fields, and here I’ll just give you a few highlights.

First though, I want to make two general comments. I did notice that only ~20% of the speakers were women, which is worse than astrophysics conferences, and it’s too bad the organizers weren’t able to make the conference more diverse. (There were a few people of color speaking though.) Secondly, I think it’s excellent that people (and not just in California) are actively involved working on solutions and innovations, but I think we should be careful about an technophilic or technocratic emphasis. This was a conference for physicists and engineers though, and energy policy and communication with the media and policy-makers, for example, were mostly beyond the scope of it. I was struck by the apparently close ties with industry some speakers had (such as Amory Lovins and Jonathan Koomey); to some extent that’s necessary, but I was a little concerned about potential conflicts of interest.

…On to the conference. Ken Caldeira spoke about the global carbon balance. When accounting for CO2 emission per capita from fossil fuel use and cement production: the US is worst (50kg CO2/person/day), followed by Russia, China and the EU. California emits half as much as the rest of this country, but 2/3 of the difference is due to a fortunate climate (it doesn’t get very cold); according to an audience member (Art Rosenfeld?), “we’re mostly blessed with good luck as well as some brains.” Daniel Kammen (one of the organizers) then talked about developing a framework for energy access for all. According to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC AR4 in 2007): “warming will most strongly and quickly impact the global poor.” Kammen described the concept of “energy poverty”: 1.4 billion people lack access to electricity today, and that will still be the case for a similar number in 2030, with more having unreliable/intermittent access. There appears to be a strong correlation between electricity access and human development index.


It seems that many people are working on interesting research & development on renewable energy sources. Jennifer Dionne spoke about the “upconversion” of solar cells, which includes thermodynamic, electronic, and photonic design considerations. The upconversion process improves cell efficiency by at least 1.5× (see Atre & Dionne 2011), and it often works well at optical near-infrared wavelengths. (She pointed out that of energy from the sun, 5% is in the UV, 43% in optical, and 52% in infrared. And if you’re interested in what those proportions are like for different types of galaxies, check out my recent paper.) Then Chris Somerville spoke about the status and prospects of biofuels, the production of which is currently dominated by the US and Brazil. The combustion of biomass has challenges for providing low-carbon energy: depends on tilling of soil, land conversion, fertilizer, transportation, and processing. I’m concerned about deforestation and effects on ecosystems as well as the effects on food/crop prices (remember the food riots in 2007-2008 and the rising cost of corn/maize?). In my opinion, Somerville didn’t sufficiently address this, though he did argue in favor of miscanthus and other biomass rather than the use of corn. John Dabiri spoke about the advantages of vertical-axis wind turbines (called VAWTs, see the figure above), in addition to the ubiquitous horizontal-axis variety. VAWTs have a smaller structure size and cost, simpler installation logistics, and are safer for birds and bats as well. Currently only four countries get >10% of their electricity from wind (Spain, Portugal, Ireland, Denmark, followed by Germany with 9%), but this can be easily improved.


This flow diagram is pretty nice, and it describes current energy use in the US (presented by Valerie Thomas). And Daniel Kammen, in a paper on the relation between energy use, population density, and suburbanization, shows the spatial distribution of carbon footprints (where the units are tCO2e, or total carbon dioxide equivalent per household).


Tilman Santarius give a nice talk about energy efficiency rebound effects, which is closely related to my previous post, where you can find more information. He discussed the interactions between energy efficiency, labor productivity, human behavior, and economic growth, and he distinguished between rebounds due to an income effect vs a substitution effect. In any case, average direct rebound effects appear to be around 20-30% (Greening et al. 2000; Sorell 2007), in addition to a 5-10% of indirect rebound. In other words, around 1/3 of income savings due to energy efficiency is lost because of an increase in energy demand. He also talked about the psychology of rebounds, including moral licensing (such as Prius drivers who drive more) and moral leakage (people feel less responsible). It will be a difficult task to try to separate energy demand from economic growth.

There were many other interesting talks, but I’ll end with the issue of climate adaptation and geoengineering. Ann Kinzig described how the combined risk of a phenomenon is the sum Σ p (event) × impact (event). Mitigation seeks to reduce the probability p while adaptation seeks to reduce the impact. Climate change will have impacts on food, water, ecosystems, and weather events, and decision-makers in urban areas can try to prepare for these (see this website). Kinzig also spoke about historical case studies of failed adaptations by people in the Hohokam (Arizona), Mesa Verde (Colorado), and Mimbres (New Mexico) regions, and the dependence on societal hierarchy and conformity. Alan Robock spoke about the risks and benefits of “geoengineering”, which involves gigantic projects in the future to address climate change, such as space-based reflectors, stratospheric aerosols, and cloud brightening (seeding clouds), and basically involve using the Earth as a science experiment with a huge cost of failure. In particular, he studies the many problems of injecting sulfate aerosols into the stratosphere to cool the planet. (Some people have supported this idea because of the supposedly benign effects of volcanic eruptions in the past.) He discussed the potential benefits of stratospheric geoengineering but compiled a list of 17 risks, including drought in Africa and Asia, continued ocean acidification, ozone depletion, no more blue skies, military use of technology, ruining terrestial optical astronomy, moral issues, and unexpected consequences. For more on Robock’s research and for other useful references, go here.