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Failure to launch

The spectacular explosion that destroyed a privately owned spacecraft seconds after lift-off from NASA's Wallops Island launch pad in Virginia Tuesday was a temporary setback for Orbital Science, the company that developed the unmanned vehicle, but if history is any guide it won't seriously delay the development of a commercial U.S. space industry.

Mercifully, no one was killed or injured when the company's Antares rocket blew up. Nor is there any danger that the loss of its 5,000-pound cargo of supplies bound for the International Space Station will leave astronauts there stranded in orbit. A Russian Soyuz cargo rocket carrying additional supplies docked with the space station just hours after the accident at Wallops. Engineers at Orbital Sciences will figure out what went wrong and correct it. This isn't the first time one of their rockets has misfired, and Tuesday's mishap was another step along the learning curve.

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What the failure of the Orbital craft's launch has really taught us is a lesson the engineers and scientists who pioneered the American space program long ago learned: Rocket science is really, really hard. Despite all the advances in technology and the experience gained since the first manned landing on the moon 45 years ago, launching a half-million-pound vehicle packed with explosive chemicals into space remains a difficult and dangerous enterprise. Even after the Space Shuttle program of the 1980s began to make spaceflight seem routine, catastrophic failures continued to occur that twice resulted in the destruction of billion-dollar spacecraft and the tragic loss of their crews.

Yet NASA is betting that American ingenuity and private enterprise are up to the task of developing a commercial space industry that ultimately will be as reliable and economically viable as the U.S. commercial airline industry is today. The United States has been a world leader in the development of spaceflight for military and scientific missions since the dawn of the Space Age, and it must retain its preeminence in the commercial exploitation of space that represents the next step in humanity's conquest of the final frontier.

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For decades, NASA both operated and owned the spacecraft it used to launch U.S. cargo and crews into space. But in principle there's no reason private industry can't do the job as well and just as safely — and, ideally, more efficiently. That's why the space agency has enlisted private aerospace companies to build and operate a next generation of spacecraft that NASA (and possibly other customers) could lease on a per-flight basis. Orbital Sciences, headquartered in Dulles, Va., and its rival, Hawthorne, Calif.-based SpaceX, are among the first companies to be awarded NASA contracts to ferry supplies to the space station and, eventually, shuttle astronauts to and from the orbiting outpost as well.

Officials at Orbital are still investigating the cause of Tuesday's explosion, which also damaged parts of the launch pad and other structures at Wallops. Early speculation has centered on the Russian-made AJ-26 first-stage rocket engine the company uses to power its Antares launch vehicle and the Cygnus cargo module that sits atop it. The engines are modified versions of propulsion units built in the 1970s for the Russian space program that have been in mothballs ever since, and some observers have questioned their reliability after so many years. Orbital says if the problem is traced to the Russian engines the company will speed up development of a new propulsion system to replace them.

It's inevitable that challenges and setbacks will remain part of the effort to reap the benefits of commercial space travel by private industry. Rocket science isn't going to get any easier as companies compete for a share in a market that includes everything from commercial satellite launches to space station resupply missions to suborbital jaunts for adventurous, well-heeled space tourists. But however the fate of individual companies shakes out, the commercial exploitation of space clearly is the wave of the future, and the U.S. can't afford not to be part of it. We can simply be thankful that no one was hurt on Tuesday and hope that the accident provides lessons that bring about even greater advances in the future.

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