Tuesday, the Anteres Rocket, an unmanned cargo rocket, exploded in Virginia. The rocket was carrying more than 5,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station. Thankfully no injuries occurred, but the video of the massive explosion brings back grim memories of the 1986 Challenger Rocket that killed all seven of its crew members.
What arouses suspicion about this explosion is that the rocket was a project by the private company Orbital Sciences Corp. of Vienna, Virginia, contracted by NASA. Since the NASA budget for space operations has been steadily reduced over recent years, and since space operations are one of the most expensive endeavors possible, NASA has increasingly tried to involve commercial agencies to reduce its exorbitant costs, hopefully increasing efficiency along the way. After all, an NPR article reports that using the Space Shuttle to transport supplies costs about $10,000 per pound, and private contractor SpaceX claims to be able to reduce those costs to $2,000 per pound.
However, there are doubts about whether or not safety is being adequately addressed in this evolving field. NASA should and will investigate the cause of this explosion, which is not clear at this time. But NASA should also be cautious in its desires to deregulate the industry in the interest of reduced costs. Saving on preparation costs is helpful for the long-term ambitions of making space travel economically feasible, but exploding rockets will surely cut into the bottom line. The explosion may turn out to be an anomaly and commercial firms may uphold their safety-first obligation, but if deregulation contributed to mission failure, then perhaps reduced costs will have to come another route.