With the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo within four days of Orbital Science’s Antares/Cygnus spacecraft exploding on the launch pad, it’s been a bad week for commercial spaceflight in general and space tourism in particular. Even though the investigations into the SpaceShipTwo incident are only beginning, there are those who already claim that Sir Richard Branson’s dream of sending tourists on suborbital flights into space is as dead as the Hindenburg. But is it?
Let’s start with the obvious. The crash of SpaceShipTwo is definitely a setback for Virgin Galactic. Such a disaster of such a heavily publicized project has every chance of resulting in scaring customers, investors, and the public, as well as inviting all manner of government regulations. For a company whose main purpose is to provide well-heeled customers with a US$250,000 ride 100 km (62 mi) into space, the crash could cause as much loss of confidence as an outbreak of the plague on a cruise ship.
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That’s true even though it’s very early days as the accident investigations begin and so many questions still need to be answered. Suspicion has already fallen on the use of a thermoplastic polyamide solid fuel for the first time and some have claimed that the basic design is at fault, but Friday’s accident might also be due to a mistake in construction or preflight checks, a faulty component, human error on the part of the SpaceShipTwo or WhiteKnightTwo mothership crews, the weather, or plain bad luck. Only the future will tell which it is.
One thing to keep in mind is that SpaceShipTwo was on a test flight, and test pilots are right up there with bomb disposal experts and war-zone journalists on insurance companies’ lists of their least favorite people. This goes right back to Eilmer of Malmesbury, a Benedictine monk at the Abbey of Malmesbury in Wiltshire who, some time in the 11th century, strapped on a pair of homemade wings, jumped off the Abbey’s tower and broke his legs in what has been called history’s first confirmed flight test. Then there was Jean-François Pilâtre de Rozier, who was the first air fatality only two years after the first balloon flight, followed by Sophie Blanchard, the first woman casualty, who died when her balloon caught fire in 1819.
In the history of aviation, this list is depressingly long, with many of them happening in tests of new technologies that seemed as impractical bits of folly as a chocolate teapot. And the same losses occurred during the Space Race and beyond with the loss of two Space Shuttles and their crews, fatal Soyuz capsule re-entries, the Apollo 1 launch pad fire that killed three astronauts, and other accidents that killed a total of 20 astronauts and hundreds of ground crew.
It’s against this background that the SpaceShipTwo crash occurred and will most likely inform those in the field as to whether space tourism is technically and economically viable, but that is an extremely complex question that stretches beyond matters of safety. In this context, though a tragedy, the SpaceShipTwo accident is part of the game.
Will space tourism die with SpaceShipTwo on the floor of the Mojave desert? From a technological standpoint, there’s no reason it should. Though Scaled Composite’s design is in many ways revolutionary, most of it is retreading the path set by the US X15 spaceplane program of the 1950s and ‘60s – which suffered a couple of spectacular accidents of its own. And that technology is part of the larger field of spaceflight, which is now over half a century old and one that our civilization is now dependent on for its continued security and prosperity.
In the end, though, it is public reaction that is the real kicker. Even the soundest commercial project can be stabbed through the heart through bad publicity. In the 1950s, for example, the De Havilland Comet put Britain years ahead of the competition as the first jet airliner to enter service, but a series of alarming crashes due to a design flaw put paid to that lead forever – despite the fact that the airframe flew with a remarkable safety record until only a few years ago. The same is true for a string of aircraft, cars, trains, and even laptops that had a bad day and never recovered.
That being said, though a competitor may prosper, Virgin Galactic could suffer. Unless Sir Richard can counter the publicity from Friday’s crash, it could taint the Virgin Galactic brand for good. And given its history of long delays and uncertain future, that remains a possibility.
However, that may turn out to be moot as far as Virgin Galactic is concerned. When Sir Richard Branson first broached the idea of a suborbital tourist ship, it seemed almost crazy. Now there are a number of companies with similar projects and even plans for spacecraft carrying holidaymakers to orbiting hotels. It may be that one more delay will mean that SpaceShipTwo will have been delayed one too many times and be left in others' wakes.
But is space tourism worth the cost? Unless you’re the one footing the bill, that’s a very difficult one to answer because it depends very heavily on our perceptions of risk. There are some things in life where we demand zero risk and others where we happily accept an alarmingly high chance of death every time we step into a shower or ride in a car. Even the question of whether tourism is worth the risk of a single life is one of matter of perspective, given that men and women in the emergency services risk their lives every day plucking people off the sides of mountains – most of whom are hikers and climbers rather than miners and lumberjacks.
Added to this is the fact that the technologies that went into SpaceShipTwo have applications beyond sending Hollywood actors on an expensive thrill ride. Virgin Galactic is already offering the use of its craft for suborbital scientific missions and the launcher is also being developed to send satellites into orbit. This, too, is a factor in the future of the industry.
Perhaps the best way of summing up the situation is in the words of Commander Chris Hadfield in support of Virgin Galactic:
"In testing the boundaries of human capabilities and technologies, we are standing on the shoulders of giants. [On Friday,] we fell short. We will now comprehensively assess the results of the crash and are determined to learn from this and move forward together as a company."