The crash of the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo could be considered the Challenger disaster of the commercial space industry. The crash seriously injured the rocket ship’s pilot and killed its copilot. The accident has also seriously delayed the long awaited advent of regular space tourism.
The dream of taking the well-heeled and adventurous on sub-orbital jaunts was born in 2004 when SpaceShipTwo’s predecessor. SpaceShipOne, won the Ansari X Prize by conducting a series of suborbital jaunts. SpaceShipOne proved that the private sector could build and operate its own spacecraft on its own dime. Sir Richard Branson soon after formed Virgin Galactic with the goal of conducting regular space flight for profit.
Ten years later, that dream seems as far away as ever. Rocket science is often used as a metaphor for something that is extremely difficult. The crash of SpaceShipTwo, just like the Challenger and Columbia disasters before it, also proves that it can be dangerous.
But then developing new transportation technology has always been paid for as much in lives as it was in money and time. Aviation, so much a part of modern life, was developed through the efforts of test pilots who all too often died in the air or on sudden impact with the ground. But, slowly but surely, air travel became unarguably the safest form of transportation in existence.
Richard Branson has vowed to continue the dream of private space flight. Whether he will have a role in that will depend as much on his investors and customers as it will his engineers and test pilots. But even if Virgin Galactic fails, other companies are working on similar vehicles, XCOR is developing a rocket plane that is designed to take a pilot and paying passenger on sub-orbital flights multiple times per day. Government funded and commercially operated spacecraft are slated to take astronauts to and from the International Space Station in a few years. The Boeing CST-100 and the SpaceX Dragon will hopefully serve private customers as well as NASA when they begin flying.
Inevitably the crash of SpaceShipTwo will prompt some degree of navel gazing about the future of space travel and whether it is worth it. Some have even suggested that Virgin Galactic stop trying to develop a space tourism business or that space tourism be banned.
Decades from now, when people are taking trips to and from space stations and settlements on the moon as regularly as people today fly from America to Europe, such an exercise will seem silly. They will barely remember how what will be for them as natural as air travel is to us was paid for.
To paraphrase Kipling, what happened in the skies over the Mojave was the price of space admiralty. To turn that around, the price of not daring to push the envelope and expand human horizons would be even more grievous. Pulling back and turning away from the high frontier because we are unwilling to pay the price will mean the death of the human spirit.
The price will be paid again and again. Other test pilots will die in explosions and crashes of space craft as they endeavor to wring every last ounce of performance out of them. Astronauts will die often grisly deaths on the surfaces of the moon, Mars, and other worlds or in the empty black between them. But the prize they will have won will be a future brighter than anyone can now dream of.
Mark R. Whittington is the author of The Man from Mars: The Asteroid Mining Caper and the Children of Apollo trilogy.