NASA has released its findings concerning the failure that occurred during the 2011 launch of the space agency’s Glory spacecraft on an Orbital Science Corporation’s Taurus XL rocket. The launch site was Vandenberg Air Force Base, located in California.
The panel was led by Bradley Fink, the director of the Research and Engineering Directorate at NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center in Edwards, Calif. While the panel could not determine why it happened, they were able to discern what caused the spacecraft to not reach orbit.
To make it safely through the Earth’s turbulent atmosphere, spacecraft are encapsulated in a protective shield called a fairing. This fairing is the rocket’s nose cone. Normally, upon reaching a pre-determined altitude, the fairing splits open like a giant clamshell, freeing the spacecraft and allowing it to conduct its primary mission. This did not happen—at least not fully. Glory was doomed less than three minutes after it was launched, and the satellite ended up plunging into the Pacific Ocean. The panel detailed ways in which future failures could be avoided. These potential solutions focused in on issues that revolve around the joint system that make up the fairing. Both NASA as well as Orbital Science Corporation are continuing to study the problem.
Glory was designed to orbit the Earth and collect data on our planet’s climate. This makes its failure all the more ironic. Two years earlier, NASA launched the Orbiting Carbon Observatory (OCO) atop another Taurus XL rocket. It suffered the same fate as Glory, as its fairing also failed to open. OCO re-entered the atmosphere, plummeting into the Indian Ocean.
Glory cost an estimated $424 million and OCO an estimated $280 million, bringing the total cost for these two losses to $704 million. While NASA has not issued the full report citing U.S. International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR) and information concerns, a summary of the report can be found here: Glory