October 30, 2014 / 12:21 AM / 5 years ago

NASA explosion fuels concerns about Russian engines, oversight

WASHINGTON, Oct 29 (Reuters) - The explosion of an Orbital Science Corp supply rocket over Virginia could accelerate U.S. efforts to replace aging Russian space technology with a pricey homegrown rocket engine.

Even before the crash on Tuesday, Orbital had planned to switch to another engine for future launches, given the age of Soviet-era motors now in use as well as uncertainty about future supplies.

Analysts said they expect Orbital to use a motor from Alliant Techsystems following the planned merger of the two firms.

More critical will be the potential development of a U.S. rocket engine that could eventually power both Orbital’s Antares and the Atlas V rocket built by United Launch Alliance, a Lockheed Martin Corp -Boeing Co joint venture.

The Atlas V rocket is powered by the Russian-built RD-180 engine, which is newer and has had no performance issues.

U.S. lawmakers have earmarked funds in draft budget legislation for fiscal 2015 to start work on a new engine. Air Force and Pentagon officials cite broad consensus to end U.S. dependence on Russian engines and the Soyuz spaceship, currently the only way for astronauts to reach the International Space Station.

Pressure could also rise on privately held Space Exploration Technologies to accelerate its own planned launches. SpaceX, run by billionaire Elon Musk, is hauling supplies for NASA and separately seeking certification from the Air Force to carry military and intelligence satellites.

Authorities are investigating what caused the unmanned rocket to explode in a fireball moments after liftoff, destroying about 5,000 pounds of supplies and equipment bound for the space station.

Analysts said the failure appeared to begin in the first stage of Orbital’s Antares rocket, powered by a pair of NK-33 engines refurbished by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp , and resold as AJ-26 motors.

The explosion also threw a spotlight on NASA’s strategy to outsource key parts of the space business to private firms. But unrelenting budget pressures mean the “buy versus build” approach is here to stay, government and industry officials say. NASA first hired private firms to haul cargo into space in 2008.

Florida Democrat Bill Nelson, who chairs the Senate Commerce Committee’s science and space panel that oversees NASA, said “Our commercial space ventures will ultimately be successful.”

Lawmakers could demand closer scrutiny by NASA of its commercial partners’ activities after a string of mishaps, including an explosion in May of the same engine that powered the Orbital rocket involved in Tuesday’s incident.

Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, noted that compared with NASA, the Air Force had far more oversight of the United Launch Alliance, which on Wednesday completed its 50th launch of the Atlas V rocket, without incident.

Orbital shares closed down 16.8 percent on Wednesday, at $25.70. (Reporting by Andrea Shalal, additional reporting by Marina Lopes; Editing by Ros Krasny and Ken Wills)

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