While writing my previous post about commercial launcher woes, I found out that Orbital Sciences will be using the same Wallops launchpad as the ill-fated Conestoga rocket. Conestoga was the first privately-funded launch vehicle. The first Conestoga used surplus Minuteman second stages and had a successful launch in 1982.

The next version of Conestoga to fly was called the 1620 (code for its configuration) and used Scout missile second stages. Its first and last flight was in October 1995. I have no idea why the announcer calls it an automatic failure other than brainlock.


Noise in the guidance system led to multiple unnecessary course corrections until the steering mechanism ran out of hydraulic fluid. This kind of failure also happened with a Delta 3 launch in 1998.

It looks like the range safety kicked in around 1:20 in the video. The solid fuel is still burning, but the boosters are falling straight down. Usually there’s some kind of explosive like a linear shape charge that either knocks off the nozzle or opens the casing on a solid motor.

6 thoughts on “Conestoga”

  1. One of the primary reasons why I have serious doubts about the viability of the private sector to provide safe and reliable man rated launch services is that the profit motive constantly clashes with the need for multiple redundancy in all critical systems. It is the classic question of how many 9’s are required?

    The way that NASA has done things has been criticized by many as being too expensive. But if you value the lives of the crew, who are ALWAYS involved in an inherently risky business, then isn’t their safety a primary concern. And in the area of unmanned missions one has to realize that while scientific missions are very expensive, there is also a major question of lost opportunity cost. Many of the science missions are dependent on specific alignment of the launch site (KSC or Vandenberg) and the mission target. In many cases a favorable alignment may only occur once in years, or decades.

    If, as the critics favor, you adopt the “faster, cheaper” mantra and reduce testing and engineering, and you minimize redundancy, then you also are accepting ever higher risks and much lower probablitities of success (fewer 9’s). So when a mission fails you not only have lost the entire investment in the mission, but you have lost an opportunity that may not recurr for decades.

    The whole business of space transportation is not now, nor will it be for the forseeable future, as simple as calling FedEx and saying I have a package to be delivered on orbit.

    History shows us that it has taken an average of about fifteen years to design, develop, and qualify each new man rated sytem. And even then, as Alan Sheppard said, the astronaut is sitting on top of tens on thousands of parts all made by the lowest bidder. So would you prefer to fly yourself, or your precious cargo, on a NASA launcher with lots of 9’s, or with the Grace L Furgeson Space Launch and Storm Door Company?

  2. I am always amused at finding how many times my life has intersected with posts on this blog. I worked for EER Systems, which bought SSIA in 1990, from 1992 until they were bought out by L3 in 2001. I remember they had a model in a glass case of the Conestoga rocket and a Conestoga wagon in the lobby of the Vienna office. I had to go to the corporate office about 3 weeks after the rocket blew up after the Wallops Island launch. Someone had stuck an arrow through the canvas wagon cover on the wagon.

    That was a company with a sense of humor!!!

  3. Do you think that maybe part of the problem at NASA has been that they haven’t had a decent Administrator since Dick Truly?

  4. Roamy, don’t let me put you on the spot. I have fairly strong opinions about NASA leadership and am free to express them because I am no longer required to bite my tongue. I’m fully retired now and don’t have to worry about the consequences of expressing my views. You, on the other hand, do not have the same freedom.

    Let me just say, as a long time close observer of NASA, that NASA leadership has been an oxymoron for a number of years. The fact that NASA has been unable to project a vision for a robust space program that could win broad support from the public, and the Congress has made the job of Administrator very difficult. He (or she) and the Deputy have to muster sufficient support in the budget process to get a decent mark in the President’s budget, and then they must be able to defend it through an almost incomprehensible Congressional process. And, in their spare time they have to manage a technical program that constantly on the cutting edge.

    I think I would like to see a return to the early days in which Jim Webb handled all the political/budget problems and had a very strong deputy to handle the technical side of things.

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