Photo credit by Eugene Kaspersky; Flickr
By Ahmad A. Malik
Following the crash of SpaceShipTwo last week, 20 potential customers for Virgin Galactic’s space shuttle program have withdrawn from the wait list, amid safety concerns. This signifies a three-percent drop in clientele for the company’s space tourism program, which was scheduled to launch in the spring of 2015. The wait list nearing 700 potential customers includes noted celebrities from the likes of Stephen Hawking to Justin Bieber.
While those who cancelled were not named, the safety and legitimacy of a privately run space tourism program have been called in to question given the launch failure of both Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and NASA’s Antares Rocket in the same week. While the latter is publicly funded, the risks of space flight and general regulation regarding aviation are evident – the SpaceShipTwo crash resulted in the death of its captain and severe injuries of its co-captain.
“The NTSB indicated that the lock/unlock lever was pulled prematurely based on recorded speed at the time,” Virgin Galactic said in its official statement following the crash. “And they have suggested that subsequent aerodynamic forces then deployed the feathering mechanism, which resulted in the in-flight separation of the wings and vehicle. At this time, the NTSB investigation is still ongoing and no cause has yet been determined – these are purely facts based on initial findings.”
SpaceShipTwo was based on a modified design of SpaceShipOne, the winner of the X-Prize – a science competition with a $10 million reward. It is designed for commercial service rather than a proof of concept demonstration like its predecessor. Two pilots would command as many as six passengers in the spacecraft, which spans 42 feet wide by 60 feet tall.
The carbon composite body is propelled by a hybrid rocket motor, which is replaced by a traditional rocket motor after the SpaceShipTwo is released from White Knight, it’s carrier aircraft, which deploys SpaceShipTwo after bringing it to an altitude of 50,000 feet. This process takes approximately two hours, and has been tested 172 times since 2008.
After SpaceShipTwo deploys from White Knight, it has an independent flight time around 30 minutes, and will continue beyond NASA’s definition of space (about 60 miles above the surface of the Earth). The spacecraft had a 6G capacity and was capable of reaching supersonic velocity within eight seconds of rocket ignition – capping at Mach 3.5.
This impressive demonstration of human space exploration has rightly sparked the interests of billionaires looking to enter an otherwise untapped market. Sir Richard Branson, the founder of Virgin Galactic, joins Elon Musk of SpaceX (the founder of the X-Prize), as an established businessman working to bring commercial space flight to mankind. While only seven civilians have ever traveled in what NASA defines as space, companies like Boeing, Space Adventure and Excalibur Almaz are all racing to deploy the first functioning commercial space vehicle.
While space travel’s upside is well documented, these privately funded programs still have a ways to go. Separate from the original Cold-War era space race, these new initiatives are devoid of geopolitical pressures – entry in to space can be calculated and designed to minimize risk. However, that would require a decent amount of regulation by the federal government. But balanced against the interests of business to provide a safe yet thrilling experience to its customers, private enterprise has an unrivaled chance at establishing a market for space travel.
“In my view, the private sector has the same incentive, or even more, to get things right as the government does,” Lori Garver, a former NASA deputy administrator, said. “If we only trusted risky things to the government, we would only fly in government-owned and operated airplanes.”
Call it the Space Race, Round Two.