Virgin Galactic Disaster

By Eric Maynard

Since private spaceflight’s inauguration in 2001 with millionaire Dennis Tito’s $20 million flight on a Russian Soyuz rocket, an industry of startups has flourished including Elon Musk’s Space X, Larry Page and Eric Schmidt’s Planetary Sciences, and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Private spaceflight passed another milestone in 2008 when Space X became the first private entity to launch a rocket into orbit. Over the course of the next few years, the company achieved many other firsts, including first private cargo delivery to the International Space Station, a role it is now contracted to fulfill. Many other companies have since joined Space X after its successes in private launches; and the industry stands poised to further expand into cargo delivery, space tourism, satellite launches, and beyond. The recent disasters of the Orbital Science’s Antares Rocket explosion and the fatal disintegration of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in late October, however, now bring this upstart industry’s continued success into question.

Billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic has been at the vanguard of private spaceflight since 2004, when SpaceShipOne broke the 100 kilometer barrier into space twice within a week, winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize in the process. The company followed its success with the development of SpaceShipTwo, which first flew in 2013 and which has been intended to be the first backbone of a fleet of suborbital spaceplanes. Aimed at making space tourism relatively affordable, a flight that would briefly reach suborbital altitudes currently costs a prospective passenger some $250,000. Before the October accident, Virgin Galactic had accepted deposits from around 800 passengers, including such notables as Stephen Hawking and Brad Pitt.

Some may regard the recent disaster, which has soured Virgin’s successes, as extraordinary, in that it is the first fatal accident in private spaceflight. Yet, it is not so extraordinary to expect that such an event would occur: Despite the 53 years since Yuri Gagarin became the first human to reach space in 1961, danger remains and will continue to remain inherent to spaceflight. Public complacency to these risks has been rudely awakened before, with high profile disasters or near disasters in the past such as the loss of the Challenger in 1984, the Columbia in 2003, both with all crew, or the near loss of Apollo 13 in 1970. Some 29 astronauts and cosmonauts have lost their lives in the lines of duty since 1961; and for every 100 astronauts that NASA launches from Earth, one does not return. Though Virgin Galactic suffered a previous accident in 2007 during ground-based engine testing that resulted in the deaths of three engineers, October was the first accident during flight that resulted in a fatality. But given the nature of the field itself, the occurrence of a tragedy such as this cannot be considered shocking.  For the industry as a whole, and especially Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic, the damage from these two accidents will be substantial. Still, the disasters do not dampen the promise that the industry holds for the continuation and expansion of human space exploration.

Elon Musk ambitiously set out with Space X to reduce the costs of space travel by a factor of 10. If Space X’s Falcon 9 launch cost of $1864 per kilogram is compared to the estimated Space Shuttle per pound costs of $8000, then it has already made substantial gains. Next year, Space X hopes to begin launches of the Falcon Heavy rocket, hoping to reduce prices further with a near quintupling of the Falcon 9’s orbital payload. Virgin Galactic’s ticket price of $250,000, while only for a short sub-orbital flight, is a remarkably more affordable way to reach space than was the $30 million Richard Garriott paid for his ticket to the ISS in 2008!  While government entities such as NASA and other governmental space agencies have been instrumental in paving the way for private corporations by risk, research, and space races, their inefficiencies are endemic. Not being required to turn a profit, only such entities could have put us into space in light of the immense upfront costs of doing so; but it will private competition that keeps us there.

As all eyes have now turned to Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences, they will have the unenviable task of defending their public images, and restoring government and consumer confidence in the safety and reliability of their flights. Heightened awareness of the danger involved also now brings the risk of government regulation, and additional lengthy and expensive safety measures. The optimistic hopes of Branson to begin commercial flights by 2015 must now be considered unrealistic. Numerous voices across the major players in the industry have noted the damage dealt by the disasters – and such damage will doubtless be felt for months or years to come in a volatile and young industry dependent on image. But the private spaces industry’s recent disasters may be considered as more or less eventualities given the hazards involved. These hazards are the same that plagued trans-oceanic exploration during the European Age of Exploration, or early days of human flight. Despite the death of Thomas Selfridge when he flew with Orville Wright and their aircraft crashed in 1908, and the status that Selfridge achieved as the first fatality in powered flight some five years after its invention, and despite all the disasters which have beset air travel for over a century, flight has remained and grown to be a part of everyday life. Tragedy has now struck and set back the pioneers of private space industry, but this no-longer fledgling industry is one that in the long term will inevitably prosper.

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