Is the Virgin Galactic crash the end of space tourism, even before it has begun?
Virgin Galactic began in 2004, bankrolled by Virgin owner and billionaire Richard Branson. His goal was and still is to provide commercial orbital space flights for ‘space tourists’. The spacecraft is launched by a special aeroplane called ‘White Knight Two’ and the spacecraft that is planned to orbit the world is ‘SpaceShip Two’. Spaceship Two completed three successful test runs, but a fourth, which took place 9 months after it’s previous flight on October 31st 2014 ended in disaster when it crashed to Earth in the Majove desert, California after experiencing an in-flight anomaly.
Virgin Galactic was testing a new, more powerful and steadier fuel, which is based on plastic, rather than the rubber based fuel which had been previously used. The engine was started normally but a few seconds later, the aircraft broke apart violently. The co-pilot was killed on impact and the pilot, who was ejected from the aircraft, landed with serious injuries. The debris covered an area 35 miles. Richard Branson has said that he is determined to find the cause of the crash and to make sure that it doesn’t happen again.
Virgin Galactic is one of the biggest commercial space programmes in the world; they have been working closely with NASA since 2007. However, this crash will have undoubtedly hurt the reputation of Virgin; their plan to run commercial space flights for people to buy may have taken a hit as well and could mean fewer people will be interested. However, plane crashes have been happening for several decades and people still fly daily. This crash probably won’t have ruined Virgin Galactic but public trust in the company and its space travel will have taken a hit.
The cause of the crash is currently under investigation, an investigation which is set to take a year, meaning there have been no definitive answers as to what went wrong yet. The pilot (Peter Siebold), who has already been interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board, has so far given his version of what happened when the plane started to crash and everything up to the point he was ejected. The National Transport Safety Board has said that his account of what happens is consistent with the data that they have seen from other data sources. Siebold was thrown from the plane at 50,000 feet, where the temperature was -57 degrees Celsius. His body was battered by high speed wind and he passed out before he landed.
This crash will undoubtedly have a negative impact on the Virgin Galactic project. Richard Branson has been pushing for his space program for a number of years now but this is the first major disaster the company has seen in its history. Virgin Galactic is also one of the most well known companies for space tourism, if not the only, which is seen as something very futuristic and advanced. I don’t believe this crash will completely end space tourism; the first plane crash didn’t end plane travel. However, it will mean that space travel is looked upon with more caution and possibly will take more time, as the companies who run the programmes will need to take every possible measure sure that this sort of thing happens as few times as possible.
Image: SpaceShipTwo © Virgin Galactic, images.net