Setback to Commercial Space Travel

Two accidents in one week have put a big question-mark on the commercial space industry now.

The crash of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo on Friday and the explosion of the unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket on Tuesday makes us wonder if all is safe with the dream of space travel.

Movies of science-fiction and the rise of futuristic-technology made us fantasize we will move from one place to another at the blink-of-an-eye, and travel between planets at the snap-of-a-finger.

Of course, I am exaggerating. But that is what we were made to dream.

Friday’s crash, however, of Virgin Galactic spaceship in its test flight over Mojave desert in California, makes us think again.

Virgin Galactic, the British commercial spaceflight company within the Virgin Group – founded by the flamboyant Sir Richard Branson – has been ambitiously offering commercial space flights for about $250,000 to many, including to a host of celebrities.

Booked into an inaugural flight – into this very SpaceShipTwo that crashed now – were the Virgin Group CEO Richard Branson and his children, and celebrities such as Tom Hanks, Angelina Jolie, Justin Bieber and Leonardo DiCaprio. They are said to have paid a lot, for a spot, on the ship.

In the waiting list were said to be other celebrities like Russell Brand, Katy Perry, Aston Kutcher, Stephen Hawking and Kate Winslet.

What would they be thinking now, I wonder.

The real question is probably not whether Commercial Space Travel is possible at all.

I am sure it will catch up. But, when?

This accident will definitely set back the industry by a few years.

Maybe I am a skeptic. But, regaining people’s faith in this technology could take some more time.

Maybe I am a bit like that man who said “Flying is reserved only for angels”. But his own two sons – the Wright brothers – went on to invent the airplane!

I still believe, however, that rushing into places where angels fear to tread is unwise. Maybe we should go slow.

Here are excerpts from Virgin Galactic’s press statement after their Spaceship crashed.

“Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today (Friday, Nov 1). During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.

“The Virgin Galactic team is cooperating with our partners at Scaled Composites and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) as well as local authorities.

“Local authorities have confirmed that one of the two Scaled Composites pilots died during the accident. The other pilot parachuted to the ground and is being treated at a local hospital.

“All of us at Virgin Galactic are deeply saddened by today’s events. Our thoughts and prayers are with the families of all those affected by this accident”.

Many space travel enthusiasts will be glad to read what Richard Branson said on Saturday, November 1: “We are determined to find out what went wrong.”

“We’ve always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project,” he said. “We’ve been undertaking a comprehensive testing programme for many years, and safety has always been our No. 1 priority.”

I believe too, that safety must be the No. 1 priority over ambitious dreams when lives are at stake. And the testing programme must go on until we are very very sure.

Better safe than sorry.