Two years ago I observed the launch of a NASA satellite, called the Orbiting Carbon Observatory, intended to help scientists understand the wide variation in uptake of carbon from the atmosphere by the earth. I wrote about it for the Santa Barbara Independent.
At an impromptu press conference held after the OCO crashed into the Southern Pacific ocean, launch director Chuck Dovale vowed on NASA TV that the agency would not rest until they had found the cause of the failure, and would not send up another satellite until they knew they had found the solution.
Well, this weekend NASA launched another climate satellite, Glory, designed to measure aerosols in the atmosphere. The mission was powered by the same kind of Taurux XL rocket as before, and the satellite built by the same corporation, Orbital Services. Once again the launch failed, and once again the failure was traced to explosive bolts designed to open a clamshell snout and release the satellite into orbit.
Veteran journalist Seth Borenstein reported on the "contingency," as the engineers say, once again for the AP, as he did on the last failed launch.
The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and plummeted to the southern Pacific several minutes later. The same thing happened to another climate-monitoring probe in 2009 with the same type of rocket, and engineers thought they had fixed the problem.
"It's more than embarrassing," said Syracuse University public policy professor Henry Lambright. "Something was missed in the first investigation and the work that went on afterward."
The cost? $424 million.
Scientists are trying to move climate change forecasts from ones that are heavily based on computer models to those that rely on more detailed, real-time satellite-based observations like those that Glory was supposed to make. The satellite's failure makes that harder.
Epic bad luck? Or incompetence at NASA and Orbital?