For the second time in two years, a rocket glitch sent a NASA global warming satellite to the bottom of the sea Friday, a $424 million debacle that couldn't have come at a worse time for the space agency and its efforts to understand climate change.
The Taurus XL rocket carrying NASA's Glory satellite lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California and plummeted into the southern Pacific Ocean several minutes later.
Glory's clamshell-shaped protective covering, which was supposed to shield it during launch, never opened to let the satellite fire into orbit. A similar fiasco happened in 2009 when the Orbiting Carbon Observatory fell back to Earth after the rocket nose cone also failed to separate, 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."
Lambright warned that the back-to-back fiascos could have political repercussions, giving Republicans and climate-change skeptics more ammunition to question whether "this is a good way to spend taxpayers' money for rockets to fail and for a purpose they find suspect."
Thirteen NASA Earth-observing satellites remain in orbit, and nearly all of them are in their sunset years.
A NASA investigation board and Taurus' builder, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Va., will try to figure out what went wrong. It was the third failure out of nine launches for that rocket. NASA paid Orbital $54 million to launch Glory.