The death of one pilot and serious injury of another during a flight of Virgin Galactic Spaceshiptwo was no surprise at all. A serious accident destroyed the vehicle 45,000 feet over the Mojave Desert on October 31. This was a powered flight in which the on-board rocket engine was ignited.
Every day we are lulled into a state of complacency as we speed from place to place in jets with less risk than walking across the street in our neighborhood. The fact is that spaceflight is hard; NASA tends to make it look easier than it really is. The public became bored with the miracle of sending a man to the moon way back in the 70’s but it was none the less just that, a miracle.
I honestly always knew it was just a matter of time before someone was killed in the race to send paying passengers into space. The fact that this happened as early is it did was a bit of a surprise. The chief designer of this spacecraft, Burt Rutan, is arguably the brightest, most innovate aircraft designer of our time. Despite his qualifications, coupled with the budget and infrastructure Virgin Galactic brings to the table, an accident like this was inevitable. Even with all of the technological advances we’ve made, spaceflight is still a dangerous business. It is sad that a test pilot was killed in this accident, but it would have been worse if passengers had been killed as well.
I wondered what effect an accident would have on the effort to send private passengers into space; we will find out now. When you think about all of the risks involved in sending people out of our protective atmosphere, you can’t escape the fact that there is a significant chance for failure, and loss of life will quickly follow.
1) Rocket Engines – No matter if the engine is solid fueled, liquid fueled, or a hybrid, the fact is that rocket engines fail, rocket engines explode. If you’re in a small vehicle with a large engine when it fails, bad things can happen. As a rule of thumb, one out of one hundred rocket launches fail. For now that is just a fact of life.
2) Space is a vacuum – If you manage to make it into space, it is an extremely harsh environment. One small crack in the skin of the craft, one small hole, and it is all over. The passengers on these flights are not in space suits, which would give them an added layer of protection. If anything at all happened they would be exposed to the vacuum, which would be catastrophic.
3) Launch stresses – During ascent, the vehicle undergoes a wide variety of stresses: aerodynamic, structural, thermal, G-loading. All work to damage the structure that protects the passengers.
In short, when you send people into space there are going to be accidents. Virgin Galactic was doing as good a job as anyone could in creating a reliable, safe method to send people into space. The day a flight into space is as safe as a plane flight is not in the foreseeable future. Leaps in technology will be needed in order to achieve that level of reliability.
I suspect they will learn from this event and start up again, but the risk will still be there. Passengers who take these flights will do so hopefully knowing this is not a flight to grandma’s house for the holidays. It is more dangerous; the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity comes with real risk.