A Major Setback For Space Tourism

Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Crashes During Test Flight In Mojave Desert

Kenneth Chang brings us the latest on the Virgin Galactic tragedy:

The Virgin Galactic space plane that broke apart over the Mojave Desert on Friday shifted early into a high-drag configuration that was designed to slow it down, federal accident investigators have said. The accident killed the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury; the pilot, Peter Siebold survived after parachuting out of the plane.

Clive Irving puts the disaster in perspective:

From the beginning in 2004 there has always been a credibility gap between the fairground hyperbole of [Virgin Group founder Richard] Branson’s formidable publicity machine and the scientific reality of the enterprise. Somehow, probably because he is such a consummate showman, Branson has been able, year after year, to override the story of continual delays, flagrant over-promises and a voracious, seemingly open-ended budget. This time it’s different. A National Transportation Safety Board investigation will deliver a forensic rigor that has been so far lacking. It will strip away the vocabulary of the promoter. And it will reveal the world as lived daily by the engineers and test pilots who knew how much was left to be understood among the hazards of the dream.

Adam Rogers predicts that, following this crash, “we’re going to hear a lot about exploration, about pioneers and frontiers. People are going to talk about Giant Leaps for Mankind and Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before.” He recommends we “call bullshit on that”:

SpaceShipTwo—at least, the version that has the Virgin Galactic livery painted on its tail—is not a Federation starship. It’s not a vehicle for the exploration of frontiers. This would be true even if Virgin Galactic did more than barely brush up against the bottom of space. Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar. It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world.

Jazz Shaw focuses on the financing of such projects:

The problem I’m wondering about here is that there are really only two target customer markets for these ventures. The government is the only viable buyer for services to ferry materials and astronauts to the space station. And while the government is a very regular customer, one change in administration or shift of a few decimal places in a budget committee report can dry up your sales overnight. The only other customers for an entity like Virgin Galactic are very high end, wealthy tourists. Initial ticket sales – even at a quarter million a seat – have been brisk, but one or two explosions can dampen the enthusiasm of your target audience. And even if everything had gone perfectly, there is surely a limit to the number of buyers for a service like this once the novelty has worn off.

Mataconis calls Virgin Galactic “little more than a Richard Branson vanity project that was unlikely to lead to a viable business in the near future.” But he is more optimistic about “the side of commercial space travel represented by companies like SpaceX, Boeing, and Orbital Sciences”:

For the time being, there’s obviously not going to be the kind of free market in space that some evangelists for commercial uses of space have talked about in the past. One imagines, for example, that Branson’s “space tourism” idea is pretty much dead for at least the next decade in much the same way the civilians in space program was put on hold after the Challenger disaster, but the involvement of private companies in the space program is likely to increase. Don’t be surprised, for example, to see things like SpaceX, Boeing, and other companies contracting directly with private companies for launches rather than going through the Federal Government. In other words, there is a future for the commercialization of space to some degree, but much of most of our efforts to “slip the surly bonds of Earth,” it is still at the point where we are moving slowly.

Wilson da Silva, who pre-purchased a Virgin Galactic ticket, is still excited about going into space. He compares the histories of space and air travel:

The pioneers of powered flight, brothers Wilbur and Orville Wright – who gave birth of the modern age of flying – experienced a fatality in September 1908, on their third demonstration flight for the US Army before a crowd of 2,000 people in Fort Myer, Virginia. Orville took up one passenger with him, and the third of these – 26-year-old Lieutenant Thomas Selfridge – became the first passenger to die in an aircraft accident: the propeller came off, and the plane nosedived 23 meters; Selfridge died from a fractured skull, and Orville suffered a broken leg and ribs.

Aviation become important in World War I, but despite some advances in the 1920s, it was still dangerous and fatal accidents were routine. Pilots flew 100m above ground, navigating by roads, railways and compasses. It took years of flying and experimentation before air travel became safe. Between 1920 and 1926, one in every four pilots was killed annually; in the 1930s, one in 50. By 1966, it was one in 1,600.

Alex Tabarrok remarks that “the safety of rockets continues to be far too low to support significant tourism”:

Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, which crashed [Friday], was just on its 23rd powered flight suggesting a failure rate of perhaps 5%, in line with expected values. An earlier tragedy involving tests of the rocket motor killed 3 people. As I said ten years ago, even a failure rate of 1 in 10,000 is far too high to support space tourism of the “fat guys with camera” variety and we are not yet close to a failure rate of 1 in 10,000.

Dish’s coverage of last week’s other aerospace accident, the Antares rocket explosion, is here.

(Photo: Debris from Virgin Galactic SpaceShip 2 sits in a desert field north of Mojave, California on November 2, 2014. By Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)