Science & Astronomy
2. November 2014

On Tuesday, the failure of Orbital Science’s Antares rocket with the Cygnus space cargo freighter was a harsh blow to space exploration, but on Friday even worse news came with the breakup and crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo during a test flight, resulting in the death of one pilot and serious injuries to another. Both accidents combined are maybe the worst event in spaceflight history since the loss of Space Shuttle Columbia eleven years ago, but unfortunately many people are already jumping to all the wrong conclusions.

Because both the Antares rocket and SpaceShipTwo are private endeavours, a lot of media attention is suddenly on the private spaceflight sector and fingers are already being pointed. The tip of the iceberg so far was an opinion piece on Wired called Space Tourism isn’t worth dying for, not only implying but plainly saying that the death of the pilot is the fault of a “millionaire boondoggle thrill ride”. Even more irresponsible is linking an unrelated explosion of a ground-based engine test seven years ago, during which three engineers died and three were injured, to the current accident just to hammer home the fact that four people have died in connection with the development of SpaceShipTwo.

In the article, loud complaints are also made that SpaceShipOne is not even a real space ship and all this nonsense only available for rich people is not worth risking lives. This is the point where it gets ridiculous: of course Richard Branson wants to create a business of suborbital, briefly weightless flights into almost-space – because space exploration in even those small steps has to be funded somehow and not even a billionaire like him can pay everything out of his own pocket. For a more measured view of the situation including some technical details, I can recommend this article on NASASpaceflight and, as usual, the reporting of Universe Today.

[Small update… even the Guardian joins in on the chorus, albeit somewhat more detailed and less polemic, but still surprisingly negative considering that not much is known at this point. Too much speculation!]

[More Updates from November 5th: It looks more and more like a combination of human error and mechanical defect of the feathering mechanism, which was prematurely deployed… that doesn’t make the situation any less sad, but it still shows that the majority of the press was barking up the wrong tree for the sake of sentationalism.]

[Even more Updates from November 8th: Wired has made a lot of amends especially with this article called Discrediting Space Tourism insults the People who risk their Lives for it, with exactly the same points I was trying to make in this post!]

It’s also not about heroism or the will to die for something – it’s about the will of taking risks for test flying a whole new type of aircraft. Surely none of the pilots involved in the operation of Virgin Galactic and their contractor Scaled Composites, or for that matter any test pilot, are going on suicide missions. They are taking risks, but everyone is taking risks when flying or driving or walking across the street – the risks are higher for test pilots, but that is why not everyone is capable of doing it. The pilots of SpaceShipTwo are not forced at gunpoint to fly, but they are also not crazy to fly such a still experimental plane. These are professionals who know a lot about the plane they are flying and they know that there is an acceptable risk that something can go wrong.

This time something did go wrong and, of course, it is suspicious that it happenend on the first flight after a major engine modification and the use of a new kind of plastic-based fuel. Maybe there were errors or false decisions made, but pointing a finger at Richard Branson and saying he killed the pilot in pursuit of a pipe dream is flat-out wrong and completely irresponsible journalism. For now, there is no new information while the investigation of the NTSB is going on and speculation does not help – instead being sympathetic towards Virgin Galactic and the families of the deceased and injured pilots would be the appropriate response many media outlets simply fail to do.

All this is no doubt a terrible blow for private space exploration, but Richard Branson has already said that he will continue the work on SpaceShipTwo and that Virgin Galactic will have a future. Sadly some news articles are already painting his hopeful words as “casting doubt on the future of spaceflight” – while it is true that there will be no Virgin Galactic passenger flights early next year, they will come somewhere along the line. Pioneering something so new with so many unknown factors is incredibly hard, but someone has to do it – otherwise there would probably be no cars, no planes and certainly no space exploration as all.

[Note: Image borrowed from the Wikipedia SpaceShipTwo article under the CC-BY-SA 3.0 License. Original author Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic.]

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