Friday, October 31, 2014

The Harder They Fall


Click the arrow to watch local news coverage of the crash. Video source: KABC TV Channel 7 Los Angeles.

The NewSpace wounds had yet to heal from Tuesday's loss of the Orbital Sciences Cygnus cargo module when Virgin Galactic tweeted this ominous message today:



Minutes passed and no official word came from the Virgin Galactic Twitter account. The silence was deafening.

Others in the Mojave Desert bearing witness to the test flight began to tweet reports of emergency dispatches on the local public safety scanner channels. An aircraft was down. Parachutes had been sighted. One pilot was alive but injured. Another pilot ... dead on arrival.

Nearly ninety minutes later, Virgin Galactic tweeted the worst.

During the test, the vehicle suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of SpaceShipTwo.

VSS Enterprise was no more.

During a press conference, a representative of Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipTwo for Virgin Galactic, announced that the two pilots were theirs, not Virgin's.

As of this writing, their names have not been released.

As with Orbital, initial suspicion has fallen on the ship's engine. With Orbital, critics have pointed out that the AJ-26 engines originated in the 1970s with the Soviet-era moon program. But with Virgin, critics are pointing at the use of a new exotic fuel.


Click the arrow to watch a May 8, 2014 polyamide-fueled hybrid engine test. Video source: Virgin Galactic.

After years of attempting to fly with a rubber-based solid fuel, Virgin abandoned that approach and switched to a plastic-based fuel.

The new engine had been tested on the ground, and today was the first test in flight.

But as with Orbital, it's too soon to conclusively point to the engine as the cause.


Long-range images of the SpaceShipTwo drop and breakup. Original source: Kenneth Brown.

Weeks like this are hard for those of us who are passionate about space advocacy, NewSpace in particular.

Accepting change is hard. Change means taking a risk, but innovation and progress can't happen without taking a risk.

If humans never took a risk, we'd still be cowering in caves.

At the same time, risk is calculated. When risk results in failure, some will accuse the failed of recklessness.

That charge may be true in this case. Richard Branson, Virgin Galactic's founder, has brashly claimed for many years that his suborbital commercial flights were only a year away and that he himself would take the first operational flight along with his family.

As recently as September, Branson told a New York City audience that he and his son would take flight in Spring 2015.

Critics have claimed that Virgin Galactic lacks a proper safety culture.

In July 2007, three Scaled Composites employees were killed when a hybrid motor exploded on the ground during a test.

Just how much risk is too much may be, like beauty, in the eyes of the beholder.

But if you look back at the advent of commercial air flight in the early 20th Century, the parallels are striking.


Hotelier and philanthropist Raymond Orteig. Image source: Philanthropy Roundtable.

The Orteig Prize was a contest funded by New York hotelier Raymond Orteig. He offered $25,000 to the first person who could fly non-stop between New York City and Paris.

You've probably guessed that Charles Lindbergh won that prize when, in 1927, he flew Spirit of St. Louis across the Atlantic.

But what you may not know is that Orteig offered that prize in 1919.

Before Lindbergh accomplished the feat eight years later, six men died in three different crashes.

Later that year, the Dole Air Race lost ten lives and six airplanes in an attempt to fly from San Francisco to Hawaii. Pineapple magnate James Dole was inspired by the Orteig Prize, and offered $25,000 to the winner.

Eighty-seven years later, we think nothing of flying from New York to Paris, or from San Francisco to Hawaii. How many people who fly those routes today think of the pioneers who lost their lives in a “reckless” attempt to prove it was possible?

Eighty-seven years from now, in the year 2101, it's entirely plausible that suborbital point-to-point transportation will be routine, and no one will think about that “reckless” flight on October 31, 2014 when two pilots risked their lives with a dubious engine design to prove that commercial suborbital flight is possible.

I suspect those 22nd Century passengers will think it was worth the risk.

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