If you’ve been thinking of launching your very own rocket into space, maybe you should wait until September. August, by all accounts, has been a dismal month for space agencies everywhere. Here’s a rundown of the month’s miseries:
August 2: The SpaceX company’s Falcon1 rocket, which was supposed to separate into two parts and propel one of the parts into space, does not.
This mission, SpaceX’s third unsuccessful attempt to reach orbit, was particularly disheartening for a couple reasons. First, NASA had hoped that private companies like SpaceX might be able to accelerate their development of space travel technology because soon the U.S. won’t have any of its own—after the last space shuttle is decommissioned in 2010, NASA will have to rely on the Russians for space travel because the Orion vehicle (more on this later) won’t be ready until 2014 at the earliest.
Second, Falcon1 carried the ashes of the late James Doohan, who played “Scotty” on the original Star Trek.
August 17: In a failure that Americans can feel good about, Iran’s attempt to fire a rocket into space ended in disappointment in Tehran. The state-run media first announced the test flight as a ringing success, but U.S. intelligence officers say it failed to reach its goal of putting a satellite in orbit. Still, the Iranians got further than they did in a similar test in February, the intelligence sources said, indicating they’re probably taking incremental steps toward actually reaching space.
August 19: NASA releases the photo seen above. Parachutes deployed too quickly and then tore off of the mock-up of the Orion capsule, NASA’s replacement for the space shuttle, sending it hurtling toward an abrupt meeting with the Arizona ground. The failed Orion test flight actually took place on July 31, getting August off to an inauspicious start. However, NASA waited a few weeks before showing the crash photos to the world.
August 22: More than two miles up, a NASA rocket begins to veer off course, causing alarmed mission controllers to hit the abort button in case the stray rocket endangered people on the ground. Besides being NASA’s second public relations fiasco in a week, the agency lost $17 million in equipment.
At least one space agency had an August success, however: China’s first lunar satellite, which has been orbiting the moon for nine months, survived an eclipse. With its solar power deprived as the Earth blocked out the sun, Chang’e 1 ran on battery power for three hours until the sun returned. Nobody seems to be disputing the Chinese government’s claim to success, so let’s hope that their good fortune leads the way to a better space-faring September. NASA is sending a manned crew to the Hubble Space Telescope next month, as featured in the current issue of DISCOVER, so they could use a bit of better luck.