As you may have heard, space exploration was dealt another tragic blow on Friday, as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two broke up in flight, killing one pilot and gravely injuring the other. So what happened… and where does space travel go from here?
What’s SpaceShip Two?
It’s Virgin’s attempt to build a space tourism industry and push aviation further. Technologically, it’s a suborbital spaceplane; essentially, it’s the jetliners we all know, capable of flying higher and faster.
Why is it important?
Beyond the space tourism aspects, suborbital planes could change how quickly we travel across the globe. Regular, commercial, suborbital flights could let you hop continents in the time it takes to watch a Walking Dead episode. We’re not nearly close to consumer spaceflight, yet, but that’s one of the goals. Also important is that it encourages more private investment in spaceflight, which will need to happen if we’re going to explore beyond the Earth.
What caused the crash?
Unfortunately, that’s not yet clear. What we do know is that the pilots may have prematurely employed the braking system, and that they were testing a new type of fuel, which may have caused an issue. The federal investigation is still ongoing and has not come to any conclusions. We probably won’t see any for months.
Isn’t this the second spaceflight accident lately?
Yes, last week an unmanned rocket launch also went wrong, forcing NASA safety officers to trigger the self-destruct. It’s been a rough week for space.
What does this mean for modern spaceflight?
In the short term, the loss of SpaceShip Two is a serious setback for Virgin. It’s currently building a second version, but that construction will likely be put on hold until it’s determined there are no problems with the design or the way the plane is put together.
Long-term, it’s a black eye for private spaceflight. Despite what you may hear, it’s not a permanent setback; realistically, most of us were staying on the ground anyway. But it does raise a few questions about design, and the government might be forced to step in or pass new regulation depending on what comes to light. It may also potentially deter investment, something the fledgling industry doesn’t need.
Still, the main setback is the tragic loss of Michael Alsbury, the co-pilot. We’d like to take a moment to give our condolences to Mr. Alsbury’s family. If you’d like to contribute to his memorial fund, you can find that on GoFundMe.