Virgin Galactic Disaster: Bad News for the Future of Commercial Space Travel?

Space, the final frontier. The deep unknown that causes us to gape skywards in wonder, dreaming of what must be up there beyond the stars, dreaming of the swirling nebulas and the darkness that has no night and no morning, the melting time and the weightlessness. Dreaming of how different the Earth might be if only we could step away from it and view it from afar. From above. Like Gods.

Commercial space travel was once the stuff of science fiction, but all science fiction boils down to either hopes or fears that we hold for the future. When Richard Branson established Virgin Galactic, he had a vision of making space tourism a reality in his own lifetime. But the company took a blow last Friday following a disaster that resulted in the loss of life of 39-year-old pilot Michael Alsbury. A second pilot, Peter Siebold, managed to bail out and survive the crash with severe injuries and is reportedly in a stable condition.

What Happened?

The crash involved SpaceShipTwo (SS2), Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane that was unveiled by the company back in 2009. Large enough to carry up to 6 passengers, SS2 was constructed from lightweight carbon composite materials and powered by a hybrid rocket motor. It was designed to be first lifted into the air via a purpose-built carrier aircraft before being independently launched and set into flight to an altitude just above the Earth’s atmosphere.

Friday’s disaster marked the fourth-ever powered flight for SS2, and the first-ever flight using a new plastic-based fuel. Previously it has been running off a synthetic rubber fuel that failed to meet expectations and had continually caused headaches for engineers in their quest to stabilize the ship’s flight.

Just a few seconds after being launched from its mothership, SS2 reportedly experienced some difficulty and dropped from the sky silently, its engines off, before crashing to earth about 25 miles north of California’s Mojave desert.

While investigations are ongoing as to the exact circumstances surrounding the crash, details have emerged that SS2’s re-entry “feathering system” was prematurely released. This feathering system causes the ship’s twin tail booms to rotate, increasing drag and slowing down the craft, allowing it to drift back to earth like a shuttlecock. Investigations have revealed that the mechanism was activated during the test flight, apparently without command, before the ship had reached suitable speeds to require it.

“After it was unlocked, the feathers moved into the deployed position and two seconds later we saw disintegration,” stated Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the US National Transportation Safety Board. Hart was unable to draw solid conclusions between the unlocking of the feathering system and the fate of the ship, however, calling the occurrence “a statement of fact and not a statement of cause”.

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In The Name of Progress

The crash of SS2 opens up the debate about the costs versus the benefits of space travel. Some argue that progress requires risk, potentially even sacrifice. Major technological advancements never come without a cost: they’re bound to be marred by some failures and disasters. These are the hurdles that act as agitators to keep the projects evolving and growing, to discover what the problems are so they can be ironed out and improved upon for the next attempt. But humans are not disposable – and every effort should be made to ensure that human life is not the cost of such errors.

In the case of Virgin Galactic, the luxury factor adds complexity to the debate. This is not space travel for the sole benefit of science. It’s space travel as an adventure only the richest can afford to buy.

“Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar,” wrote Adam Rogers in WIRED. “It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world.”

Rogers’ article went on to criticize the loss of life in such a pursuit: “People get rich; they spend money. Sometimes it’s vulgar, but it’s the system we all seem to accept. When it costs the lives of the workers building that system, we should stop accepting it.”

In the UK’s Guardian, Zoe Williams put forward another eloquently scathing view: “Sub-orbital tourism holds a special place in the unlovely pantheon of “experience” consumption. The waste of fossil-fuel energy could only be considered by someone who either didn’t believe in anthropogenic climate change or didn’t care. The need to see Earth from a distance with your own eyes, whatever the cost, hints at an interior life as arid as the surface of the moon.”

Virgin Galactic have appeared undeterred, however, announcing on Wednesday that they intend to focus on building a replacement ship with a view to resume test flights as early as summer 2015. “There was no question it was a tragic setback, but it’s one from which we can recover,” stated Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides.

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Could The Disaster Have Been Avoided?

Despite Virgin Galactic’s insistence that it had not ignored any safety warnings before the test flight, or taken any unnecessary risks in the interest of pushing forwards to meet its ambitious timelines, some sources have expressed doubts.  Joel Glenn Brenner, a reporter writing a book about the SpaceShipOne program, had come to know both pilots of the ill-fated ship. In an interview with NPR News the day after the crash, Brenner was asked if she’d caught wind of any doubts about the rocket prior to its launch. “I did,” she replied. “You know, it was a brand new rocket that they were using yesterday, and in fact, yesterday’s flight test was the very first time that they were lighting this new rocket. And it is this new rocket, I have no doubt, that was the cause of yesterday’s explosion.”

She also stated that “there were several changes that were made. And they had never been tested in flight before. […] And there were some people, I have to tell you, who were quite concerned about how this was all going to react in flight.”

Meanwhile, a statement posted on Virgin Galactic’s website denies that safety was in any way neglected. “At Virgin Galactic, we are dedicated to opening the space frontier, while keeping safety as our ‘North Star’. This has guided every decision we have made over the past decade, and any suggestion to the contrary is categorically untrue.”

The Future of Space Tourism

It wasn’t just Virgin Galactic who suffered last week. In fact, it was a bad week for the commercial space travel industry all round. A rocket belonging to Orbital Sciences suffered a similar fate on October 28 when it exploded after take off. The Antares rocket was valued at a costly $266 million – and the disaster saw the corporation’s shares face a crash of their own, with around 16% scraped off the share value a day later. Fortunately no injuries or deaths were incurred.

For Virgin Galactic the potential negativity surrounding the SS2 crash is even more dire for consumer faith in the company. They had been aiming to send tourists into space in early 2015, and had already accepted more than 700 flight bookings at $250,000 each. Celebrities including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher and Justin Bieber are said to be among the ticket holders.

So will all this bad news for space travel impact the near future of the industry? If so, then hopefully for the best. Until investigations conclude, there’s no real knowing whether Virgin Galactic had any negligent culpability in their disaster. Regardless of whether their statement of holding safety of value above all else is true, it’s still a reminder that it certainly should be. Reaching for the sky is risky business. There’s an Icarian inevitability in flying too high, too fast: one is bound to burn.

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