Tragedy Slams Brakes on Space Tourism

Danielle Nadin (Staff Writer)


Last Friday saw the industry of commercial space-travel shaken by tragedy. Virgin Galactic’s partner, Scaled Composites, conducted a manned, powered test flight of the company’s SpaceShipTwo (SS2), a suborbital rocket plane destined to bring tourists into space next spring. This dream was cut short when, minutes after igniting its engines, SS2 began disintegrating in mid-flight, debris showering the Mojave Desert, where tests were being conducted. Lost in this disaster was not only the trust of the public, but the life of 39-year-old co-pilot, Michael Alsbury. The pilot, Peter Siebold, who was
thrown from the spacecraft, sustained severe injuries when parachuting to safety, but is alert and in stable condition.

So, what went wrong? Investigators are still looking into what could have caused the failure of the SS2, which had successfully completed three other similar powered flights. All fingers seem to be pointing to the new fuel mixture used by Scaled Composites on Friday. During its maiden voyage in 2013, the SS2 was fueled with hydroxyl-terminated polybutadiene (HTBD), a rubber-based fuel. This fuel was reconsidered due to stability issues, but also because engineers wanted to propulse the craft to altitudes “that would allow passengers to be classed as astronauts,” according to NASA editor Chris Bergin. This desire to go above and beyond, a necessary ambition within the space travel industry, could have led to the SS2’s downfall. The rubber-based fuel was substituted with a thermoplastic polyamide, a plastic-based solid fuel similar to nylon, which was ground tested before flight.

Reports claim that after being brought to an altitude of 47,000 feet by the WhiteKnight two aircraft carrier, SS2 was released and the ignition was triggered. Aerodynamic stresses are said to have caused the vehicle to break apart after ignition.

In the words of George Whitesides, Virgin Galactic’s CEO: “Space is hard and today was a tough day… The future rests in many ways on hard days like this…” It is easy to forget that great exploration has always been subject to such tragedy, whether it be space travel, deep sea exploration, or mountain climbing. If these events are to teach us anything, it is that proper research and testing should always come before the desire to speed up processes and meet deadlines. This said, regardless of rigorous testing, disastrous failures like this are an inevitable part of innovation. Let us hope that this tragedy will not deter people from wanting to further explore space but rather inspire them to not let the bravery of the pilots at the controls of the SS2 go to waste.

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