Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Commercial Space's Disastrous Week

A Virgin Galactic image of SpaceShipTwo in flight.

Virtually every film about the early history of the space age contains a sequence of rocket failures, including exploding Atlases, a cartwheeling Thor, and a Titan slumping back onto the launch pad. Those aging film clips were a graphic reminder that launching rockets is an unforgiving business, and even the smallest mistake can lead to catastrophe.

When America's private space industry finally got off the launch pad in the last few years, it seemed to have escaped the failures that had dogged those earlier generation rockets. These new rocket firms, sometimes referred to as NewSpace, had finally arrived, and as I reported in this blog a month ago, they took centre stage at the  International Astronautical Congress in Toronto.

That all ended last week, it appeared, when an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded a dozen seconds after its launch on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, followed three days later by the loss of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, along with the life of one of its two pilots. 

Orbital Sciences, which built the Antares rocket, has a long track record going back thirty years. Orbital has enjoyed many successes but also its share of failures. Initial reports about the failure point to Russian engines Orbital purchased and refurbished, but investigations are still ongoing. Meanwhile, the ISS was replenished by a Russian Progress freighter that was launched just a few hours after the Antares failure, and a SpaceX Dragon freighter is slated to deliver more supplies to the station in December.

The Virgin Galactic crash has not surprisingly gained more attention because of the loss of co-pilot Michael Alsbury and the serious injuries suffered by pilot Peter Siebold, along with the fact that SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry paying customers to the edge of space. More than 700 people, including Hollywood celebrities, have paid $250,000 to book a flight with Virgin Galactic.

When Sir Richard Branson set up Virgin Galactic a decade ago after the success of SpaceShipOne in the competition for the $10 million X Prize, he hoped to be flying paying customers within three or four years. Instead, testing of SpaceShipTwo and its mother ship have taken much longer than expected, and a first flight with passengers had slipped to 2015 before the accident.

Until the Halloween crash, Branson and Virgin Galactic had been criticized for excessive caution, but since then, there have been many suggestions that Virgin Galactic was pushing too hard, especially with its troublesome rocket system. These theories about its rocket have been undermined by the revelation that SpaceShipTwo broke up following an accidental deployment of wings that were supposed to slow the craft later on in flight.

As with the Antares loss, we will have to await the result of the investigation into SpaceShipTwo before reaching conclusions. 

To me, the failures were not a surprise, simply because of the unforgiving nature of rocketry and space flight, and the fact that these vehicles were built by human beings. There will be more failures in the future, and they won't discriminate between public and private builders.

There has also been some commentary about the fact that the SpaceShipTwo pilots put their lives in jeopardy in the cause of joy rides for the wealthy one per cent. While I deplore growing income disparity in the United States, Canada and elsewhere, I don't agree with this critique of Virgin Galactic.

Most super rich people waste their money on overpriced real estate, overpowered cars, gated communities, right-wing politicians, and other frivolities.

In the case of Virgin Galactic's high-priced suborbital flights, the ticket buyers are helping open space to many others who can only dream of escaping Earth. 

Today, fewer than 600 people have gone into space since the first human left Earth more than 50 years ago. After the initial enthusiasm for space flight in the Cold War, taxpayers have become increasingly reluctant to pay for ambitious space programs. 

If space is to be opened up, it will be left up to private space flight providers and to the people who can afford those expensive flights. Over time, as more people fly, even on joy rides, and demand grows for space flights, the cost of those flights will go down.

The sacrifices made by Michael Alsbury and Peter Siebold will be as important to a future where space is open to many people as those that have previously been made by the astronauts and cosmonauts who died in earlier space disasters. Hopefully the lessons learned from last week's events will quickly lead to safer and more frequent access to space.