In the aftermath of Virgin Galactic’s probable engine failure over the Mojave Desert, many are wondering what it meant, and what the impact of it will be on the state of space travel. Richard Branson took a few moments to answer a handful of questions from the media while he was in California, and his demeanor seemed subdued. He came across as apologetic and sad, maybe a little bit over-eager in his enthusiasm to guarantee that Virgin Galactic had not spent the money it had taken in advances yet, as if daring investors and clients who had prepaid to get to the front of the line to ask for a refund.
While the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) has not come to any definite answers yet, Virgin Galactic is free to resume operations. They do face the problem, however, of not having another spacecraft ready to fly. It will be some months before they are in a position to continue testing, and Branson’s somber tones were something short of reassuring. He promised complete support in helping the NTSB in their investigation, and made melancholy overtures that a doubtful mind could potentially translate to sound defeated.
A Wired.com article titled Everything We Know About the Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Crash had a detailed and up-to-date compilation of what are known to be the facts so far. They report that SpaceShipTwo was running on a new, polyamide-based fuel for the first time, which had been tested successfully on the ground, but the doomed mission was the first time it had been put to use in a live test. They also told how the NTSB would be focusing their investigation on the rocket motor, and that journalist Joel Glenn Brenner had said on CNN that the motor had started, run for two seconds, stalled and then restarted hard and exploded. It is difficult not to feel some form of sympathetic existential angst on behalf of the state of space travel, in a week where the Virgin Galactic accident ended a life, and the Antares rocket experienced a failure during launch that ended with its destruction seconds later. For most, the events were altogether too closely spaced for comfort.
Historically, however, breaking into new frontiers has been perilous. It would be impossible to know how many early sailors sank in ships before Magellan’s crew completed the first known circumnavigation, and many, many lives were lost to develop commercial air travel to the state that it is in now. There are many missions already scheduled to push further into space, and the Google X Prize perhaps represents the greatest approach to bringing voluntary design work and private capital to the industry. The competition that they are hosting has attracted over thirty teams, none of which can be funded in excess of 10 percent through government means, to try their own hands at working through the design and engineering challenges of landing a rover on the moon.
Maybe for the short-term, it would be prudent for robots to replace humans in space missions. But somewhere deep down in the DNA, part of what makes humans unique from the other primates that they likely evolved from is that they looked to the stars, gave them names, and then they stood and reached for them. The human being has too great a conceit, and far too much jealousy, to allow machines to fulfil their dreams in their stead. Manned space travel is the destiny of the species, and although tragic, the accident of Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo will not alter the state of space travel more than temporarily.
Opinion by Brian Whittemore
Inset Photo by Land Rover MENA – flickr License