Last Friday, a spacecraft owned by Richard Branson’s private space-tourism company Virgin Galactic broke up in flight in the skies above Mojave, California. The co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, was killed; the pilot, Peter Siebold, survived and parachuted to the ground, though he was seriously injured.
Although the vehicle was not a prototype — it was a SpaceShipTwo model designed to ultimately carry as many as six paying spaceflight participants at a time to an altitude of one hundred kilometers, the official start of space — the flight on Friday was still part of the test program. The vehicle had flown many times before, though this flight was with a new rocket engine that had previously only been tested on the ground.
Coming so soon after the unwelcome headlines about another private space company — the loss last Tuesday of an uncrewed Orbital Sciences rocket intended to carry supplies to the International Space Station — the deadly Virgin Galactic accident prompted a great deal of media discussion about the status and future of commercial spaceflight. Some of the articles, blog posts, and other assorted commentary was informed and interesting. Much of it, however, was not.
I would like to respond to just one article in the latter category, published on the Time magazine website and written by Jeffrey Kluger, a senior writer for Time. In a disdainful piece called “Enough with the Amateur-Hour Space Flight,” Kluger writes that he finds it hard
not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company — because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?
While Richard Branson is admittedly something of a showman and a huckster, and certainly not an engineer (or a “rocket scientist,” as the saying goes), he is also a visionary and philanthropist. Such are the individuals who change the world. And it is an insult to Jeff Bezos and Paul Allen, and tacitly to others who made billions of dollars by changing the world for the better through technology, to call their own visions and ambitions “toys,” and to cast aspersions on their tech savviness.
Now, Kluger, to be clear, is an admirer of NASA — and understandably so. The agency historically accomplished great things, and Kluger contributed to the public understanding of NASA’s accomplishments, having coauthored with astronaut Jim Lovell the book that became the basis for the movie Apollo 13. But Kluger apparently finds something distasteful, perhaps a little gauche, in the notion that non-NASA astronauts would deign to go to space, or even aspire to go. His pique at such upstarts comes through quite clearly in his snarky lines about Branson and Virgin Galactic.
It might be instructive here for Kluger to consider the life story of another individual — someone who in the early 1930s was a pilot for the Marine Corps, and then re-enlisted during World War II. This man was primarily a lawyer and a businessman, becoming a vice president at a firm that built instruments for airplanes. In the early 1960s, this man somehow “insinuated” himself “into the space business” even though he was a “non-professional” on space matters (to use the same language that Kluger assigned to Branson). Yet somehow this individual, James E. Webb, the second NASA administrator, pulled together the new government agency that Kluger so admires and that, less than eight years after he took the reins, sent men from earth around the moon, winning the space race.
Kluger thinks that a Virgin Galactic crash “always seemed troublingly likely.” Well, it was certainly possible. In my recent book Safe Is Not an Option, I describe the various ways that SpaceShipTwo (among other privately operated space vehicles) could have a very bad day. But of course it is much more possible, and even “likely,” for such an event to occur in a test program — that is why test programs exist, and that is what they were for even in the early days of space, and before that in the early days of aviation. Test programs risk test pilots’ lives and risk vehicles in order to reduce and minimize the eventual loss of fully operational vehicles carrying passengers. Kluger, like some other commentators in the wake of last week’s news, seems not to understand the difference.
We do not yet know with any certainty what caused Friday’s accident. Early speculation (entirely reasonable at the time and indulged in by me as well) was that it was the failure of a never-flown engine. That initial assumption seems to have been replaced Sunday night by the fact that the vehicle broke up instead from a premature deployment of its feathering wings. The National Transportation Safety Board has just gotten a start on its task of figuring out how and why that happened, and how to prevent its recurrence. At this point, it appears that Virgin Galactic will ultimately be able to move on with its second SpaceShipTwo vehicle, and to carry on with flight testing, though its schedule has been set back for many months. The company may yet lose another vehicle and more test pilots, because that is, ultimately, how one reduces the odds of killing one’s customers. One suspects that Sir Richard will be humbler in his hucksterism going forward. But go forward he probably will, regardless of nostalgic naysayers like Jeffrey Kluger.
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