Space

Opinion: Is space tourism dead in the wake of the SpaceShipTwo crash?

Opinion: Is space tourism dead...
Will the crash of SpaceShipTwo put and end to space tourism before it begins? (Image: NTSB)
Will the crash of SpaceShipTwo put and end to space tourism before it begins? (Image: NTSB)
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Will the crash of SpaceShipTwo put and end to space tourism before it begins? (Image: NTSB)
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Will the crash of SpaceShipTwo put and end to space tourism before it begins? (Image: NTSB)

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.

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."

21 comments
Martin Hone
I agree. An accident or two during testing is standard fare. That is what a test programme is for.
It seems that the accident may not be related to use of a new fuel, but rather an uncommanded deployment of the rear wing. In any event, improvements will be made and the technology will prove itself.
Arkay
Did motor car companies stop because of an accident? No. Did the early US and USSR space programs stop because of an accident? No. Regroup, stay calm and keep going Richard. It's your dream.
David Rochlin
When Virgin Galactic started, the idea was almost viable, but today with other firms lowering the cost of ascent all the way into orbit, the experience they hope to offer is neither going to be exclusive nor the best available. Although the competition will be more costly, I think Virgin's moment is past and perhaps the switch to more powerful rockets was partly a last gasp effort to literally recover some momentum. The group made a noble effort and it is time to let it go.
Rehab
Virgin Galactic has so many possible applications in the future, of course it will continue. When you think that the Galictic space craft reaches 2.5 times the altitude of Eustace's space jump it becomes something really special. Yes they will continue.
JweenyPwee
How many planes crashed before commercial aviation "took off"?
Humans will never stop pushing technology forward.
MattII
Whether this is the new De Havilland Comet, or the new Apollo 1 remains to be seen, but I'm hopeful it's the latter, not only would it be a boon for tourism, but also for research. I mean right now the only opportunities for weightlessness are either a costly space launch, or a matter of seconds on the Vomit Comet, whereas this will provide several minutes of weightlessness fairly cheaply.
Threesixty
Real exploration is self funded, risks are self-borne, blame is taken on the chin. Those who died did so knowing the risks and were willing to put their lives on the line. We are fortunate today for lowering the risks to the absolute minimum, but exploration without risk is not exploration.
Go Virgin.
Stuart Wilshaw
Progress carries a price tag and part off the price where transport is concerned is the lives of test pilots. When they go into service there will inevitably be a fatal accident; almost certainly more than one.
If you don't accept the price of progress then go back to living in a hole in the ground or swinging through the trees. Just watch out for rock falls, collapsing walls and breaking branches.
Facebook User
Well if I was completely honest about it and knowing the risks, if I had the money I would jump at the chance to fly in SpaceShipTwo, how else am I going to experience weightlessness and view our planet from this height. We're lucky we live in a time where such journeys are possible and if you think about it, in ancient times crossing the seas in wooden boats was undoubtedly far riskier.
Shahin Mokhtar
Is standard flight tourism dead in the wake of so many crashes? No. Same for space tourism. It will be as ordinary as flights around the world now.