SpaceShipTwo’s Fatal Crash Friday in California Desert Underscores Nascent Stage of Virgin Galactic’s Venture
By Tony A. Archuleta
SpaceShipTwo’s explosion over the Mojave Air & Space Port last Friday killed one test pilot and seriously injured another, the latest tragic and consequential fallout from British billionaire Richard Branson’s aim to blaze an illustrious, star-studded trail into the commercial space travel frontier.
That frontier, however, has proven dangerously difficult to navigate.
First, four fatalities, including a rocket motor test firing explosion in 2007 that killed three, underscores the risky nature of the venture.
Second, stocks tumbled precipitously on the near quarter-billion-dollar investment in the spaceport’s futuristic terminal hangar facility and runway when at 11 a.m. (Mountain Time), Oct. 31, spaceport anchor tenant Virgin Galactic’s fourth rocket-powered test flight went terribly awry.
As extensively reported by national and international news outlets over the weekend, SpaceShipTwo exploded midair moments after being released from its mothership, White Knight Two, killing pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, and injuring 43-year-old pilot Peter Siebold, who parachuted to relative safety.
The pilots are employed by Scaled Composites, the company under contract with Virgin Galactic to design the two-pilot/six-passenger space tourism vehicle upon which Sierra County and Doña Ana County have pinned so much of their economic development hopes for the last decade and counting.
The previous week, a veteran county commissioner bemoaned Sierra County’s seemingly diminishing role in the spaceport future, and nine days later the spaceport’s overall prospects were in question.
That future was already in question, given Branson’s widely touted visions of space travel contrasting noticeably against his pedestrian achievements in the frequently hostile skies of high-altitude rocketry.
No matter their public reaction to media inquiries, the loss of human life dealt a serious blow to the flight aspirations of the millionaire, would-be suborbital space tourists who have pledged to pay $250,000 for a ride aboard a Virgin Galactic near-space ship.
“Space is hard, and today was a tough day,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said during a post-crash presser. “The future rests in many ways on hard, hard days like this.”
That challenging future slipped three to five years further into the future, according to the majority of commercial space industry analysts widely quoted by the press.
A new fuel mixture for the rocket motor, or perhaps a structural flaw in the spaceship itself, are the early conjectures for crash causes among industry experts, as the U.S. National Traffic Safety Board investigates.
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