Can private companies keep the space station supplied?

Kimberly Adams Jul 15, 2015
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Can private companies keep the space station supplied?

Kimberly Adams Jul 15, 2015
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A couple of failed commercial launches of cargo to the International Space Station have members of Congress asking questions and researchers like Michael Fortenberry astonished at their bad luck.

Fortenberry had a $90,000 camera on the cargo flight that was supposed to go on the space station, along with 35 hard drives to store the images it collected. 

“The camera would record meteors when they enter the atmosphere at night,” he says.

The camera even had a special spot reserved for it on the ISS. But the privately owned Orbital Sciences rocket that was supposed to carry it there blew up shortly after launch.

Fortenberry, a principal engineer at the Southwest Research Institute in San Antonio was watching the launch on TV. “It was pretty heartbreaking,” he says.

Luckily, he and his colleagues had enough spare parts to cobble together another camera, which was loaded on the next flight to the ISS, the SpaceX Falcon 9. Which also blew up. 

NASA lost quite a bit of gear on that flight as well, including a space suit and equipment to build a dock for other commercial shuttles to connect to the space station.

NASA’s associate administrator for human exploration and operations, William Gerstenmaier, explained to a congressional hearing that the agency estimates “the NASA cargo loss at roughly $110 or so million on the SpaceX flight.” Some of that money was recouped because NASA doesn’t have to pay a portion of the fees for the failed mission.

The astronauts on board the station aren’t about to run out of food or supplies any time soon. They keep plenty of supplies on hand.

NASA plans to keep sending cargo commercially, and Representative Ami Bera (D-California) is among several members of Congress who express concern over the reliability of commercial space flight.
 

“We’ve been fortunate that the accidents did not have human beings on them, and only cargo,” he said in the July 10 hearing.  “But as we look at this partnership between commercialization… and taking human beings to the space station and beyond, it is a bit worrisome.”

Fortenberry, the researcher who lost his camera twice, is trying to stay positive. He points out the first launch failed a few hundred feet up, and the second a couple dozen miles up. He says at least its getting closer with every launch. He’s working with NASA to get his camera on another flight, and he’s convinced the third time will be the charm.

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