Despite High-Profile Setbacks, Commercial Spaceflight is Taking Off

For the third time in the last eight months, an attempted spacecraft launch ended in disaster. Though discouraging, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation maintains a positive outlook on its industry’s future.

Who’s up for a trip to space?

If you’ve paid any attention to the news over the last week, you’d probably take a pass for now—and maybe forever.

The accident happened, there’s going to be an investigation, and we’re going to fly again—we’ve got to keep it that simple.

The failed SpaceX Falcon 9 launch last Sunday—the rocket disintegrated shortly after liftoff—was the third such accident to occur in the last eight months. In April, a Russian resupply ship spun out of control while in low-Earth orbit. And last October, an Orbital Sciences Corporation’s Antares spacecraft fell back to its launch pad a few seconds after liftoff in Wallops Island, Virginia, and exploded.

No astronauts were on any of the rockets, but the attention around the incidents has been a big black mark for an industry that has otherwise experienced a great deal of success and is on its way to making consumer space travel a reality.

“The fact is, these anomalies occur more often than we’d like, but the industry has about a 90 to 92 percent success rate,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), a trade association that represents 50 organizations, including Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. “But, man, when you have a launch failure, everyone comes out of the woodwork. It’s tough because it’s not as frequent, but they tend to be so high profile.”

According to Stallmer, during the same eight-month period, there were about 18 successful launches worldwide. “There’s a lot of resiliency in our industry,” he said. “It’s certainly not for the faint of heart, but nine times out of 10 launches are successful, and that’s what keeps me going.”

CSF released a statement shortly after the SpaceX incident that maintained a positive outlook on the work of the industry.

“The way we see it, we have to have a good-day scenario and a bad-day scenario on all of these launches. The phone doesn’t ring as much on the good days, but on the bad days, you have to focus on the positives within your industry,” said Stallmer. “The accident happened, there’s going to be an investigation, and we’re going to fly again—we’ve got to keep it that simple. No one’s going to fold up their tent and go home. We’re going to let the investigators do their job, figure out what went wrong, make corrective actions, and then get back flying.”

Part of CSF’s work to protect the industry has included working with Congress and federal regulators to make itself a standard-setting body for the industry, similar to the Association of American Railroads, Stallmer explained.

“With such a new industry, you can either help write the standards yourself, or you can have someone write them for you—and usually that someone is the federal government, and that may not be the optimal choice,” he said. “We’re hoping to move in the same direction that AAR has as a self-regulating industry, but that takes work. And we’re trying to bring the industry together and reach a consensus around what those standards should look like.”

The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, shown in happier times. (SpaceX Photos/Flickr)

Rob Stott

By Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor for Associations Now. MORE

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