Last week was not a good one for private spaceflight. First came Orbital Sciences spectacular launch explosion of their Antares rocket, intended to take cargo to the International Space Station. Then came Friday’s tragic accident with Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle which sadly left one of the pilots dead, and another seriously injured, after their craft reportedly exploded in mid air.
SpaceShipTwo was a unique craft designed by Virgin Galactic, a private company owned by entrepreneur Richard Branson. The craft itself was built as a scaled up version of Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne - a vehicle which would take off like a rocket, but land like a plane. The Virgin Galactic vehicle was intended for use carrying a number of paying passengers into space, before landing them safely back on Earth several hours later.
The crash occurred during a test of the spacecraft in the atmosphere. While the precise causes of the accident are still not public, what has been assumed, is that the craft’s rocket motor failed to operate properly and suffered from what the industry calls a ‘hard start’ - an unintended firing of the motor.
While the causes of the crash are still unclear, what is clear, is that this accident will have a significant impact on the budding space tourism industry. Virgin Galactic was at the forefront of a small group of companies who were building solutions for taking people into space at (somewhat) affordable prices. As part of this, Virgin has managed to collect advance payments for pre-booked tickets on one of their space trips from numerous celebrities.
It is quite probable that many of these people might be wanting their money back, unwilling to travel on a craft which was killed one of its occupants. This being said, space travel is highly dangerous and still very much in a developmental stage. It is true that despite the fact that many people died in the early days of air transport, we still fly planes with little thought to the danger. Perhaps all that space tourism needs is some time for the public to regain their trust in the technologies involved before it can once again continue development.