A revolution in commercial suborbital space travel, handcrafted in a hangar at the Mojave Air and Space Port, had a tragic setback on Friday, October 31, 2014.
As the Washington Post recently best defines it: the Mojave Air and Space Port about 95 miles north of Los Angeles, is the “spiritual heart” of the commercial space travel development industry that experts and futurists call “New Space.” The New Space travel sector spans from the practically innovative to the extremely Utopian.
Photo Credit: Virgin Galatic, SpaceShipTwo suborbital spacecraft mounted onto the WhiteShipTwo carrier aircraft during Friday’s test flight.
Video Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port (2008)
Celebrity entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson unveiled in 2009 his Virgin Galactic WhiteKnightTwo aircraft carrier and the SpaceShipTwo, the world’s first commercial spacecraft, paving the way for thousands of tourists to travel in just 90 seconds about seventy miles above the Earth at 2,500 miles per hour into suborbital zero gravity space flight, peaking at a maximum height of 360,000 feet (70 miles or 110 kilometers). And then, re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere in a free-fall with folded wings of the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft, after which the spacecraft performs an unpowered spiral glide back down to an airport runway landing near you.
A similar amusement park ride called “The Dragster” at Cedar Point in Sandusky, Ohio, provides a similar Earth-bound travel experience I have enjoyed. It is an exhilarating experience lasting under two minutes.
Photo Credit: BBC
Dubbed the “Halloween Treat,” the doomed test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo space tourism craft ran into an unfortunately tragic “Halloween Trick” or anomaly or safety mishap, suddenly crashing in the California Mojave desert at approximately 1 p.m. Pacific time (4 p.m. Eastern time) on Friday.
One test pilot is dead, who was found inside the wreckage. Another as yet unidentified test pilot was injured upon parachute ejection and was found at the crash site by emergency teams, who immediately rushed him to Antelope Valley Hospital in Lancaster, California — after the world’s first spaceship, designed for commercial passenger tourists exploded in midair and fell onto the California desert, according to Associated Press reports.
Keep innovating and pushing forward into “New Space” Virgin Galactic. But also, learn from NASA’s “Old Space” experience and long-standing breakthroughs.
According to NASA, each of the four selected companies will receive an “indefinite-delivery, indefinite-quantity contract for integration and flight services.”
“The contracts are worth a minimum of $100,000, have a duration of three years, and include two year extension options,” reports Forbes.
NASA spokesman David Weaver, citing the many technical challenges of New Space, said the agency “is willing to share technical and programmatic expertise … but is unable to commit to sharing expenses with them.”
We will share more on Friday’s SpaceShipTwo crash’s future implications on “New Space” versus “Old Space” at the conclusion of this piece.
Friday’s SpaceShipTwo powered flight since January was only the fourth such powered flight of the spaceship, largely confined to relatively low altitude tests within the atmosphere. The powered flight used a new fuel mixture that had been previously tested on the ground successfully, confirmed Kevin Mickey, president of Scaled Composites, which built the vehicle for Virgin Galactic.
“Ignition! #SpaceShipTwo is flying under rocket power again. Stay tuned for updates,” Virgin Galactic tweeted at 1:07 p.m. Pacific time.
Shortly thereafter the follow-on statement was tweeted: “#SpaceShipTwo has experienced an in-flight anomaly.”
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kenneth Brown, Moment of the disaster … The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket explodes.
Soon afterwards, the SpaceShipTwo spacecraft was discovered broken apart on the Mohave desert floor.
Virgin Galactic provided no causes attributed to the crash, leaving the investigation to the United States Federal Aviation Administration and its National Transportation Safety Board.
Immediate Reactions by Officials
The company, immediately releasing a statement, said:
“Virgin Galactic’s partner Scaled Composites conducted a powered test flight of SpaceShipTwo earlier today.
“During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle.
“The WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft landed safely.
“Our first concern is with crew and their families.
“We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates as soon as we are able to do so.”
Virgin Group founder, Sir Richard Branson tweeted that he was flying to California to be with the team.
Celebrity entrepreneur, Sir Richard Branson, in a September interview with the Wall Street Journal, predicted Virgin Galactic would have its first flight before Christmas.
So, Virgin Galactic had hoped to start commercial flights as early as December, rocketing over 700 confirmed passengers above the atmosphere at a ticket price of up to US$250,000 a seat. Sir Richard Branson along with his son planned to join these early tourism voyages, where no commercial space passenger has gone before.
Hollywood celebrities, including teen pop bad-boy Justin Bieber, and actors Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Ashton Kutcher, and Tom Hanks are among the over 700 people who have paid the US$250,000 deposit to be part of a Virgin Galactic low-orbit flight.
In May Titanic star Leonardo DiCaprio auctioned off an invitation to join him on a trip into space, raising 700,000 euros (US$876,000).
Commercial space tourism industry on-the-whole aims at low-level orbit flights, designed to give passenger occupants a view of the curve of the earth, including eventually up to five minutes of weightlessness is envisioned in the future.
The FAA also immediately released on Friday, October 31, a statement on the SpaceShipTwo incident saying:
“Just after 10 a.m. PDT today, ground controllers at the Mojave Spaceport lost contact with SpaceShipTwo, an experimental space flight vehicle. The incident occurred over the Mojave Desert shortly after the space flight vehicle separated from WhiteKnightTwo, the vehicle that carried it aloft. Two crew members were on board SpaceShipTwo at the time of the incident. WhiteKnightTwo remained airborne after the incident. The FAA is investigating.”
NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said on Friday, October 31 in a statement:
“On behalf of the entire NASA family, I offer our deepest condolences to the family and loved ones of the pilot lost in today’s accident involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, and we are praying for a speedy recovery of the other pilot.”
“While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration. Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”
Aeronautics and Space Is Difficult to Administer in the Quick Turnaround Speed of the Private-Sector Only
Virgin Galactic has been hoping to be the pioneer of space tourism, taking customers nearly 70 miles above the Earth’s surface on short, suborbital flights.
“There is no absolute edge to space, because the atmosphere thins gradually, but it is generally agreed that such an altitude, where space appears black, easily qualifies,” reports the Washington Post.
“For many years, the company has been promising that it is getting close to commercial operation, but it has faced a series of delays because of technical issues — not an uncommon problem in spaceflight,” the Washington Posts analyzes.
The six passenger seat, SpaceShipTwo, has two additional seats for the pilots. The commercial space flight system is designed to conventionally aviate and navigate to an altitude of about nine miles underneath a jet-powered carrier plane, known as the WhiteKnightTwo, then dropped the winged SpaceShipTwo, which would glide for a few seconds before its rocket engine would fire.
Virgin Galactic’s overall goal is to employ that rocket engine thrust that malfunctioned on Friday to then transport commercial passengers all the way to space. Much like the space shuttle, the spaceship is proposed to then re-enter the Earth’s atmosphere and glide back to the ground and land on a runway.
According to the Washington Post, commercial service has been continuously pushed back. However, Virgin Galactic and Boeing had said such low-level suborbital tourism flights could become a reality in 2015.
Unfortunately now analysts believe the SpaceShipTwo accident is a huge blow to the emerging commercial suborbital space travel industry.
“It’s a setback for the tourism industry,” said Marco Caceres, an analyst and director of space studies for the Teal Group, a defense and aerospace consultancy near Washington DC.
“You are not going to see any commercial space tourism flight next year or probably several years after that,” he told AFP.
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo setback on Friday, nevertheless, has not completely discouraged proponents of the new commercial space tourism industry.
Former NASA space scientist Alan Stern has a ticket to fly on Virgin Galactic – and its competitor XCOR aerospace. He isn’t rethinking plans to fly in space at all.
“Let’s not be Chicken Littles here,” said Stern, now a vice president at Southwest Research Institute. “The birth of aviation was also a very dangerous time period.”
“All forms of transportation carry risk,” he said. “To expect spaceflight could somehow be different is unrealistic on the part of the public or anyone. Secondly to do something very hard, to do something on the frontier, comes with risk.”
Former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who nearly died in a 1997 fire aboard the Russian space station Mir, said when he first met British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, he told him the first thing he’d have to worry about is liability insurance, reports The Daily Telegraph (Australia).
“You will have setbacks,” Linenger said he told Branson. “That is a reality.”
SpaceShipTwo was designed by the legendary engineer Burt Rutan (shown on the left with Sir Richard Branson, shown on the right). Rutan founded Scaled Composites in Mojave, a town near Edwards Air Force Base, a region best known by the desert scenes portrayed in the 1983 Hollywood Hit “The Right Stuff” and its historic aviation speed demons storied in the movie, including those of pilot Chuck Yeager breaking the sound barrier back in 1947.
“Space is hard. And today was a tough day,” said a visibly shaken George Whitesides, the chief executive of Virgin Galactic and a former chief of staff at NASA (pictured below at the news conference on Friday, held at the Mojave Air and Space Port about 95 miles north of Los Angeles).
“We’re going to get through it,” Whitesides said at the news conference. “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this. But we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who’ve been working so hard on them to understand this and to move forward, which is what we’ll do.”
Perhaps Friday’s shocking setback pulled Whitesides’ thoughts somewhat back in history to the January 27, 1967 NASA’s Apollo 1 spacecraft launch test capsule fire that killed three astronaut crew (shown in this historical test capsule simulation photo below from right to left), Command Pilot Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, Senior Pilot Edward H. White, and Pilot Roger B. Chafee.
Apollo was the first manned mission of the U.S. Apollo manned lunar landing program. The planned low Earth orbital test of the Apollo Command Service Module never made its target launch date of February 21, 1967, because of the capsule fire during a launch rehearsal test on January 27 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station Launch Complex 34.
Although the ignition source could not be conclusively identified after lengthy Congressional investigations, the astronauts’ deaths were eventually determined as attributed to numerous flawed design and construction mishaps in the early Apollo Command Module. As a result, manned Apollo flights were suspended for 20 months, while the problems causing the Apollo 1 safety mishap were corrected.
If we die we want people to accept it. We are in a risky business, and we hope that if anything happens to us, it will not delay the program. The conquest of space is worth the risk of life. Our God-given curiosity will force us to go there ourselves, because in the final analysis, only man can fully evaluate the moon in terms understandable to other men.” — Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crash on Friday, October 31 capped a tragic week of setbacks for commercial space travel. An Antares rocket, topped by a Cygnus capsule, carrying a payload of supplies for the International Space Station, exploded Tuesday night seconds after liftoff from a launch pad at Wallops Island, Virginia. Investigators are looking into the sudden explosion, which include experts from NASA and Orbital Sciences Corporation, based in Dulles, Virginia, which owned the rocket and had a federal contract for multiple cargo missions to the space station.
Charles Lurio, the publisher of a newsletter about the commercial space industry, compared Friday’s test-flight disaster with the incidents that cost hundreds of people their lives in the early years of aviation, reports The Washington Post.
“I hope people understand that in order to make progress in certain areas, you have to take certain risks,” Lurio said. “This is why we need more than one or two companies trying things out, and why we need people willing to test things on the ground.”
Photo Credit: AP Photo/Kenneth Brown, Before the disaster … The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket separates, shown with engine power fired, from its WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft.
“Old Space is slow, bureaucratic, government-directed, completely top-down. Old Space is NASA, cautious and halting, supervising every project down to the last thousand-dollar widget. Old Space is Boeing, Lockheed, Northrop Grumman,” as the Washington Post puts it.
“New Space is the opposite of all that. It’s wild. It’s commercial, bootstrapping, imaginative, right up to the point of being delusional.”
A large part of New Space visionary and vigilant enterprises of big innovations in the commercialization of passenger suborbital space travel remain on the drawing board, as future business models and research proposals, built around spaceships that have not quite made it into space yet.
“A bold attitude and good marketing aren’t enough to put a vehicle into orbit,” says the Washington Post.
Old Space experts question: “Where’s your rocket? How many times have you launched? Can you deliver reliably? Repeatedly? Safely? We put a man on the moon — what have you done?”
The Washington Post cautions further: “If there’s one thing that New Space has going for it, it’s that Old Space is in trouble.”
“New Space companies [like Virgin Galactic] need NASA contracts, and NASA needs New Space companies to pick up the agency’s slack,” argues the Washington Post.
“We’ve made tremendous progress in working toward the goal of regular, frequent and predictable access to near-space at a reasonable cost with easy recovery of intact payloads,” NASA’s Michael Gazarik said in a press release.
“These proven flight service providers will allow for payloads from organizations including NASA, industry, academia, and other government agencies to be tested on flights to the edge of space before being committed to demonstration in the harsh environment of space itself,” Gazarik says.
So, stating once again, keep innovating and pushing forward into “New Space” Virgin Galactic. But be sure to learn from NASA’s, industry’s, academia’s and government’s “Old Space” experience, breakthroughs, and even mistakes. For safety is the “north star” in commercial passenger suborbital space travel and tourism in the future.
Video Credit: Mojave Air and Space Port (2008), 1434 Flightline St. Mojave, California 93501, Phone:
Featuring – Stuart Witt, General Manager, Mojave Air and Space Port – Sean and Nadia Roberts, National Test Pilot School and Flight Research Inc – Rick Searfoss, Test Pilot for XCOR Aerospace – David Masten and Jonathan Goff, Masten Space Systems – Debra Facktor Lepore, Airlaunch LLC/Protoflight LLC – Marie Walker, Fiberset Inc – Jon and Patricia Sharp, Nemesis Air Racing Team – Burt Rutan and Peter Siebold, Scaled Composites – Dick Rutan, Legend
Produced by Robin Snelson, Directed by Chip Proser, Music by Ramon Balcazar, Associate Producer Haley Jackson, Crew Clint Rowe Joe McGill, George Wymenga
Special thanks for video contributions by – National Test Pilot School, air-to-air and aerials – XCOR Aerospace, engine tests, Rocket Racer® courtesy of Rocket Racing, Inc. – Masten Space Systems, rocket test fire – U.S. Air Force, Edwards Air Force Base, C-17 airdrops and AirLaunch LLC and Protoflight LLC, rocket engine test. Approved for public release. – Nemesis Racing Team, Nemesis NXT first flight – Scaled Composites and Rutan Aircraft Factory, airplanes and spaceship – Dick Rutan, Voyager film.
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