WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The crash of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket is a “wake-up call” to the U.S. space community about the need to develop a new U.S. rocket engine, the head of Boeing Co’s defense division said on Thursday.
Chris Chadwick, chief executive of Boeing Defense, Space and Security, said the failure of the rocket on Tuesday was a “sad and tragic” reminder that the space business was complex and difficult, but he did not expect a lasting setback to the overall industry.
The incident underscored growing concerns about U.S. reliance on Soviet-era and Russian engines that power rockets used for U.S. civilian space, military and intelligence purposes, Chadwick told Reuters in an interview.
The Antares rocket was powered by a pair of Soviet-era NK-33 engines that were rebuilt by Aerojet Rocketdyne, a unit of GenCorp, and resold as AJ-26 engines. Even before the crash, Orbital had planned to switch to another engine given the age of the motors and uncertainty about future supplies.
U.S. lawmakers and defense officials have also raised concerns about newer Russian-built engines used for the Atlas V rockets built by United Launch Alliance, a joint venture of Boeing and Lockheed Martin Corp, given concerns that Russia could cut off those 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.”
U.S. authorities are investigating the explosion, which destroyed cargo and equipment that was bound for the International Space Station.
Orbital on Thursday said a preliminary investigation showed the failure initiated in the first stage of the rocket, which housed the AJ-26 engines, but it provided few additional details.
Analysts and industry officials this week said the Antares explosion over Virginia could accelerate U.S. efforts to develop a homegrown rocket engine.
The Pentagon is considering its next steps in a bid backed by congress to replace the RD-180 engines - an initiative that has drawn great interest from Boeing, Aerojet Rocketdyne, and Alliant Techsystems Inc, which is now reviewing its plans to merge with Orbital, as well as privately held Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX.
Chadwick said he saw great promise in United Launch Alliance’s decision to partner with Blue Origin, a company founded by entrepreneur Jeff Bezos, and leverage the smaller company’s three years of work and investment in a new rocket engine.
Reporting by Andrea Shalal; Editing by Ken Wills