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.
Related: What is the future of Spaceflight? SLS, SpaceX, Virgin Galactic?
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.
Just because there is risk in all of spaceflight, all forms and entrants are equally risky. In short…NONSENSE. There is very little that can be done to make Virgin Galactic’s craft safe enough for trained pilots much less untrained civilians. The rocket engine is a novel technology that has very little range of testing and for which there is basically zero depth of experience. Most design parameters for such an engine are largely educated guesses based on extrapolations from other rockets and materials knowledge. The aerodynamic properties are again novel and appear to be designed for a very narrow set of flight parameters that may not be maintainable in all circumstances. The carrier aircraft could not earn an FAA certification to carry passengers which may be gotten around by the presence of another craft actually carrying the passengers…with an unpredictable and poorly tested rocket motor on board. The carrier aircraft should be qualified to carry unmanned cargo rockets up to point of takeoff and nothing more.
Neither the Atlas (with it’s Russian engine) nor the Delta IV should be allowed to carry up passengers of any kind without a redesign to manned standards and significant testing of those redesigned units.
Further, yes, space is a hostile environment, but minor vacuum leaks can be patched on the fly, as has been done several times in history. Lots of other failures can happen short of disaster in a well designed system, but I am not saying that Virgin or Boeing or ULA have well designed and safe vehicles, at least for carrying humans. Sending humans up into a vacuum environment without pressure suits, at least for the stressful parts of flights, is just plain recklessness, not just risky. Flying equipment that has not been thoroughly tested in a system that flies often enough to be safe, is not in any way safe for humans. Test pilots can at least make reasonably informed decisions to fly on such hardware, but no one else should be allowed close. Virgin Galactic has no rational chance of reaching a safety level reasonable for its target market with the current vehicles. Boeing and Lockheed and their alter ego, ULA can reach that level, but have repeatedly said that they would not unless we the taxpayers pay for the whole process. That appears to be what is happening with the CST-100 where Boeing is being paid far more for Commercial Crew than SpaceX, even though SpaceX has developed the majority of their system on fixed price contracts, while Boeing and Lockheed have been paid billions of dollars per year even when they flew nothing.
Risk only seems to matter when the incumbents have money at risk.