The crash of Orbital Science's Antares rocket was a "wake-up call" to the US space community about the need to cut reliance on Russian rocket engines, according to the head of Boeing Co's defense division (See: NASA to continue commercial space launch after rocket explodes on lift-off).
Chris Chadwick, chief executive of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said yesterday that the failure of the rocket on Tuesday was a "sad and tragic" reminder that the space business was complex and difficult; however, the impact on the overall industry would not be lasting.
In an interview Chadwick said, the incident underscored growing concerns about US reliance on Soviet-era and Russian engines that powered rockets used for US civilian space, military and intelligence purposes.
Orbital had planned to switch to another engine in view of the Soviet-era NK-33 engines rebuilt by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp, and resold as AJ-26 engines that powered the Antares rocket. There was also an element of uncertainty about future supplies.
"It's a wake-up call that we need to move forward, we need to move smartly, we need to move together to protect this industry," he said. "We need to move beyond today's technology ... and look for that next generation of engine that's even more reliable, even more capable."
''It re-emphasises the need to not just be dependent upon one engine provider,'' Chadwick said. ''It's time to energise the playing field and see what we can do to get competition in that arena and bring a next-generation engine into the forefront of the launch business.''
According to Chadwick who spoke at a Bloomberg Government breakfast in Washington, development of alternative technology in the US was ''probably overdue.''
Meanwhile the US Air Force and contractors such as Boeing-backed United Launch Alliance LLC are working on homegrown alternatives to the imported engines.
While investigations are on into the 28 October accident, the failure had refocused attention on Soviet-era liquid-fuel engines powering many US rockets. The Orbital Sciences Corp mission was powered by a derivate of the NK-33 engine used for the Russian N-1 rocket on an early 1970s lunar mission.
Bloomberg quoted Marco Caceres, director of space studies at Fairfax, Virginia-based consultant Teal Group as saying in a telephone interview on 29 October that coming up with new engines was a very expensive proposition. He added that was probably one of the reasons the Russian engine was so attractive.