Commiseration or Schadenfreude?

In the New York Times newsfeed this morning, we have:

First Rocket Is Lost by Space Company

A private venture hailed as the beginning of a new age of cheap and reliable access to space suffered a setback yesterday when its first rocket was lost over the Pacific Ocean about a minute after liftoff.

The rocket, called Falcon, was being launched from Omelek Island in the Marshall Islands by SpaceX, a company that has $200 million in contracts from the Pentagon, foreign governments and private companies to put small payloads in orbit. The company said Falcon was carrying an Air Force satellite.

I can't help wondering what the reaction at NASA is to this sort of thing. Are the government's rocket scientists diasppointed to see private rockets go kablooie, or are they chuckling evilly and thinking "Not as easy as it looks, is it?"

I'm deeply skeptical of most claims about how the magic power of private industry will make space travel cheap and efficient-- safely launching things into orbit is a Hard Problem (as this story reminds us), and I think a lot of privatization advocates underrate the inherent difficulty. That said, this is bad news, no matter what you think of the more extravagent claims about private space flight. If NASA is going to continue to be yoked to the white elephant that is the Shuttle program, it would really be nice to have somebody out there pursuing alternatives.

The good thing about these space ventures being run by True Believers, though, is that this isn't likely to stop them. They'll figure out what went wrong, fix the problem, and move on. And hopefully get it right next time.

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...or are they chuckling evilly and thinking "Not as easy as it looks, is it?"

Musk himself said after last fall's postponement: "Nobody said rockets would be easy, but it was harder than that."

By Monte Davis (not verified) on 26 Mar 2006 #permalink