NASA explosion fuels concerns about Russian engines, oversight
By Andrea Shalal
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. Continuación...