U.S. space industry girds for more oversight after accidents

Reuters News
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Posted: Nov 06, 2014 9:15 PM

By Andrea Shalal

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Executives in the fledgling commercial U.S. space industry are bracing for increased scrutiny and oversight after two accidents last week, including one that killed a pilot, but say they view the mishaps as temporary setbacks that will not halt launches.

Mark Sirangelo, who leads the space division of privately held Sierra Nevada Corp, told industry executives Thursday that he expected the industry to learn from the accidents and urged a measured response by lawmakers.

Sirangelo noted there have been 454 failures out of a total 5,332 launches since the 1950s, and failure rates had remained steady at 7 to 9 percent since the 1970s.

"Launch failures and issues are part of what we do," Sirangelo told an event hosted by the Washington Space Business Roundtable. "We're going to learn from it and get better."

Last week's incidents have raised questions about the commercial space industry, and will likely trigger congressional hearings and bids to increase oversight, according to industry executives, congressional aides and analysts.

But they cautioned that ongoing pressure on U.S. budgets left NASA little choice but to proceed with commercial approaches to ferrying cargo and crew to the space station.

The U.S. Air Force is also working to certify privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to launch big military and spy satellites, ending the virtual monopoly now held by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co.

"As long as we have sequestration budget cuts in place, it’s hard to see commercial approaches going away, since that’s one way of dealing with the budget crunch,” said one congressional aide who was not authorized to speak publicly.

On Oct. 28, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded seconds after liftoff from Virginia, destroying a cargo ship bound for the International Space Station for NASA.

On Friday, a pilot with Scaled Composites, a unit of Northrop Grumman, died and another was injured during a test flight of SpaceShipTwo. The suborbital space plane, owned by Virgin Galactic, an offshoot of Richard Branson's London-based Virgin Group, was destroyed in the crash.

Sirangelo said the accidents were tragic but should be viewed in the context of the overall space business, and not as an indictment of new ventures being developed by the commercial sector. He said the airplane industry had also suffered great losses during its first decade.

"This is catalyst. Things happen that make us better," Sirangelo said. "We don't get better cars if we don't realize that cars have crashes and then we improve them."

He said the commercial space business was already subject to strict oversight, but industry should respond by being "even more open".

"What we need to do ... instead of running away from it, is confront it, explain it, and be open and honest - maybe even more open than we have been in letting people understand what happened."

(Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ken Wills)