Orbital Science Corp.’s failed rocket launch not only incinerated $200 million of cargo; it also cast doubts on the company's decades-old Russian propulsion engines and dealt a setback to the commercial spaceflight efforts championed by the White House and NASA.
The company planned to do away with the AJ26 engines by 2017 but will now look at alternatives sooner, the company said in a statement on Wednesday.
“As most of you know, the AJ26 rocket engines used in that system have presented us with some serious technical and supply challenges in the past,” Orbital chairman and CEO David Thompson said in a conference call with investors and financial analysts.
In May, an AJ26 engine exploded during a test, delaying a prior International Space Station mission that was intended to provide the station with fresh supplies.
Thompson said his company had been reviewing alternatives for the engines since the middle of last year and recently selected a different main propulsion system for future use by Antares.
“It is possible that we may decide to accelerate this change if the AJ26 turns out to be implicated in the failure, but this has not yet been decided,” Thompson added.
The blast dealt a blow to NASA’s strategy of paying billions to private companies Orbital Sciences and SpaceX to make deliveries and then spending more for SpaceX and Boeing to send Americans to the space station as early as 2017.
The Antares explosion was the first failure after two years of successful commercial cargo flights to the space station — three by Orbital and five by SpaceX.
"We can't allow the one incident of the Antares vehicle loss to smear space commercialization in Washington and on the Hill," said Charles Lurio, a space analyst in Boston.
Although the cause of the explosion is still unknown, several experts cast suspicion on the Soviet-built engines used in the rocket's first stage.
The AJ26 engines used by Orbital were initially developed in the 1960s by Ukraine’s Kuznetsov Design Bureau in the former Soviet Union and later modified in the United States.
The Russian firm denied all responsibility for the explosion, according to the Russian news agency Tass which reported: “Kuznetsov engineers have been advising the U.S. side on adapting the Russian engine but play no part in the modification process or in technical maintenance.”
In 2012, SpaceX's billionaire founder and chief officer, Elon Musk, called the Antares rocket "the punch line to a joke" because of the AJ26 engines. SpaceX, by contrast, makes its own rocket parts.
"It uses Russian rocket engines that were made in the ’60s. I don’t mean their design is from the ’60s — I mean they start with engines that were literally made in the ’60s," Musk said in an interview with Wired magazine.
Al Jazeera and The Associated Press. Deepashri Varadharajan contributed to this report.