News of two spectacular failures involving NASA hardware have giving the space agency a bad publicity week. First, the agency quietly released photos of a crash during a test of the parachute landing system for the Orion crew capsule, the next-generation craft that will replace the Space Shuttle. Then, this morning, NASA announced that a suborbital rocket built by the private contractor Alliant Techsystems (ATK) had to be destroyed during a failed launch. The rocket was carrying two NASA hypersonic experiments.
In the first fiasco, the mock-up of the Orion capsule crashed into the Arizona desert because of one faulty parachute. The good news: All but one of 18 parachutes inflated. The bad news: That 18th one was responsible for orienting the mock-up for a safe landing…. The space agency said it was torn and didn’t inflate properly [Scientific American]. This caused the other parachutes to inflate while the mock-up was going too fast; a NASA video shows that they inflated correctly but immediately tore away from the capsule, sending the mock-up tumbling towards the ground. In a classic understatement, NASA declared that the the result was a landing that “severely damaged the mock-up” [Wired News].
The parachute that failed was not technically part of the Orion capsule—it was only supposed to position the capsule to begin a dry run of its reentry into the atmosphere, which is what NASA was actually trying to test. So properly speaking, the outcome of this test is best summed up not as “failure” but as “no test”. That’s testing jargon for “the test setup messed up so badly that the test told us nothing about the tested system”. Expensive and embarrassing, yes, but it doesn’t indicate a problem with the Orion design [New Scientist].
Today’s news about the failed rocket launch was arguably worse since it involved the destruction of a real mission, but full details haven’t been released by NASA or ATK. What is known is that NASA lost $17 million worth of experiments and effort [The Virginian-Pilot]. It was carrying NASA instruments that were meant to study conditions experienced during hypersonic flight, which is defined as speeds faster than Mach 5, five times the speed of sound. (The supersonic Concorde cruised at a stately Mach 2). Launch officials were forced to destroy the rocket less than 30 seconds after it’s 5:10 a.m. launch. The rocket had veered off-course — NASA officials said they were unsure as to how far — and they had to terminate the flight at about 12,000 feet [Orlando Sentinel].