A Bad Week for Spaceflight

This week has not been a good week for the space industry with two major incidents causing millions of dollars worth of loss and even worst, the sad loss of a human life adding to the long list of failures since the industries inception in 1957. Getting to space is hard when you consider that you need to reach speeds close to 10km per second in order to get into orbit and the current industry standard is to strap yourself or your cargo to a controlled explosion. This week is a tragic example of how things can go wrong.

The first incident occurred when an Antares rocket (Thankfully unmanned) was destroyed in an amazing night time explosion that was misreported (even by us on FB) in the media as a NASA incident. In fact NASA had little to do with the explosion except for contracting the work out to Orbital Sciences which owns and runs the Antares rocket launch system. At first it looked to be a complete failure of the rocket but it actually turned out to be an employee of Orbital Sciences who blew it up.

Just moments after self-destruction
The moment before self-destruction

Now before you start thinking terrorism or Russian spy plots, the employee’s job was to destroy the rocket. Wait, what? Yes that’s right, Orbital Sciences actually employees people to destroy their multi-million dollar ($200,000,000 Million to be precise) rockets in the event of a failure, ensuring the safety of surrounding suburbs. It is good to see that public safety comes before profit for this private (yet publicly listed) space company.  This incident shows us just how hard getting to space can be, despite millions of dollars of investment, thousands of hours of research and having some of the brightest scientists on the payroll.

The second incident this week is yet another blow to a burgeoning industry that is still in its infancy, space tourism. On Friday during a test flight, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suffered a catastrophic failure, killing one of the test pilots and seriously injuring another. The space craft was testing a new fuel mixture for a redesigned engine system that, if successful would have seen Virgin’s founder, Richard Branson being shot into orbit after a few more test flights.

Before this horrible incident, Virgin officials were expecting to start commercial operations as early as next year but this looks to be off the table for now. Stuart Witt, chief executive of Mojave Air and Spaceport, said the flight began at 9:20 a.m. local time, and SpaceShipTwo was released from its carrier aircraft at 10:10 a.m. and first noted the anomaly two minutes later. While the test flight wasn’t public, Virgin Galactic tweeted that the craft’s engine had achieved ignition, following shortly after in another tweet that the craft had suffered an “in-flight anomaly.” Virgin Galactic said it would “work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause.”

The Wreckage
The Wreckage

This incident marks the first US space related death in 11 years, after the space shuttle Columbia broke apart during re-entry in 2003. “Space is hard, and today was a tough day,” said George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s chief executive, “We’re going to get through it and understand what happened.” Our thoughts go out to the families of the pilots and the engineers and scientists of the program during this difficult time.

The silver lining of both of these incidents is that the companies will learn from their mistakes and implement processes to ensure that they will not happen again. We for one hope that the private and commercial space travel industries can grow from the ashes of these events and we one day become the interstellar species of science fiction.

Stay Curious – C.Costigan

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