An Awful Week For Trying to Leave the Planet

On Tuesday a Cygnus spacecraft carrying supplies to the International Space Station exploded shortly after takeoff.  On Friday a test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two (developed by Scaled Composites) crashed in the Mojave desert, killing one of the pilots.  The only other time I can think of multiple space accidents happening in the same week, they were separated by several years.  (The Challenger explosion and the Apollo 1 fire took place 19 years and one day apart.  The Columbia disintegration was 17 years and 4 days after the Challenger explosion.)

The Virgin Galactic crash is under investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), while Orbital Sciences (which builds the Cygnus) and NASA are investigating what happened at the launch facility.  Any effort to explain what happened in either incident is quite premature.  It’s a setback for both companies, and in the case of Virgin Galactic, a horrible loss of the test pilot and his family.

What is (relatively) new here is that both accidents will affect commercial space efforts.  Orbital Sciences is one of two companies with resupply contracts to the International Space Station.  The other company, SpaceX, has been critical of Orbital in the past, raising questions about the latter company’s use of older rockets.  (Musk has been quiet lately, aside from two Tweets expressing his condolences.)  While the rockets may or may not have contributed to the accident, I’d be surprised if this choice isn’t revisited.

Another choice that will likely be scrutinized, however, is arguably the motivation for the entire effort behind SpaceShip Two.  Intended to be released in the upper atmosphere and make suborbital flights for tourists, the need and market for this craft is more vulnerable to failures like the one this week.  The program’s effects on commercial or government space exploration are likely indirect.  Virgin Galactic has planned a separate craft for satellite launches, but it is not as far along in development as SpaceShipTwo.  The mothership that would carry either craft was unharmed in the accident, so if the company has to start from scratch with SpaceShipTwo, it would not be a total restart.

I do hope that both companies, as well as NASA and the NTSB, learn as much as they can from these tragedies, and make it possible for the hard work of space travel to continue.