Monday, May 21, 2012

No Matter the Cargo Even the Most Sophisticated Freight Delivery Vehicles Can Break Down

With Nine Engines to Rely On there is Simply More to Go Wrong
Shipping News Feature

US - OUT OF THIS WORLD – Every road haulage and express logistics operator knows the frustration of missing an ‘on time’ delivery due to factors outside their control and the more complex the delivery system, the more valuable the cargo, so the pressure mounts. And in the case of extra terrestrial freight, with the enormous costs and complexities involved, when your first ever scheduled delivery starts to go wrong, the consequences are unthinkable.

With the withdrawal from service of the US sponsored space shuttle the administration has turned to the private sector, at first to deliver the essential supplies required by the manned international space station and latterly to ferry personnel to and from the ISS.

The whole project is worth around $1.6 billion and therefore NASA decreed that the contracts offered warranted stage payments once the firms involved had proved their worth by way of the preliminary deliveries. Having selected two competitors for the contracts available, Orbital Sciences Corporation which has been working closely with NASA for some time and a company mentioned before in these pages, and SpaceX, a company founded by Elon Musk, the founder of PayPal.

SpaceX has already developed two new launch vehicles and was due to launch a Falcon 9 rocket last week carrying its free flying reusable Dragon module laden with half a tonne of supplies for the ISS when take off was postponed, literally at the last minute. The Falcon rocket was poised on Space Launch Complex-40 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida on Saturday morning when, with engines running and mere seconds from launch a high pressure reading was detected in the main Merlin engine causing the computers to automatically switch off.

This is of course not the first time cargo flights to the ISS have had problems and with subsequent inspection revealing the cause of the current shut down SpaceX engineers are replacing the faulty valve within their engineering facility adjacent to the take off pad. Assuming run up tests are successful an attempt will be made at 3:44am Eastern Time tomorrow (Tuesday 22nd May) and failing that the next launch ‘window’ is the following day.

SpaceX and Orbital are both seeking the lucrative contracts which have become available since the cessation of the space shuttle and which has caused NASA to pay the Russian space programme the relevant ‘fare’ to ferry astronauts to the ISS currently at an estimated ticket price of $60 million per passenger.

Photo: Falcon 9 awaiting take off courtesy of SpaceX/Roger Gilbertson