Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo Crash: Some thoughts

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US President Kennedy said in 1962: “We choose to go to the moon in this decade and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Although space activity is increasingly quotidian, events like the crash of SpaceShipTwo yesterday, and also the failure of Orbital Science’s rocket earlier in the week, show that we shouldn’t take it for granted. This will be a major setback for a company that has already suffered many delays. And given that they are very much the frontrunner in the commercial space tourism industry, that means a delay in commercial space tourism more generally.

Having said that, many forget that ‘Space Tourism’ has existed since 2001, when Dennis Tito paid $20 million to spend 7  (Earth) days on the International Space Station. Seven further ‘tourists’ made the trip to the International Space Station after him. This was through the company Space Adventures.

Still, Virgin Galactic was a unique model. At $200,000 a ticket the prices are still steep (pun intended) but potentially opens up the ‘space tourism’ market to a wider audience. Previous tourists on the ISS spent up to 7 days in space… Virgin Galactic promises 5-6 minutes of weightlessness.

There have been criticisms Virgin Galactic’s delays , along with some cutting criticism of Richard Branson himself. Still, this event shows that safety must be a priority–another Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites explosion in 2007 killed three people. We are dealing with rocket fuel here, after all. And developing the Spacecraft so that it is safe for passengers is clearly going to take time.

Legal red-tape is also in the mix. Domestically the company has to cope with American legislation from the Federal Aviation Administration and has also been involved in developing the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) and also Commercial Crew Development (CCDev).

Less pressing but still of interest is international law: it is still not clear where low earth orbit ventures such as Virgin’s fit into the legal framework–international outer space law does not define where airspace ends and outer space begins. Flights such as these will dance around that unspecified boundary and raise questions.

Taken together, I’m afraid that those 700 people who have already pre-purchased Virgin Galactic flights will be firmly on the ground for quite a bit longer.

Condolences to the families of the pilots.

 

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Dr Jill Stuart is an academic based at the London School of Economics and Political Science. She is an expert in the politics, ethics and law of outer space exploration and exploitation. She is a frequent presence in the global media (print, radio, television, documentary) and regularly gives lectures around the world. From 2013-2017 she was Editor in Chief of the Elsevier journal Space Policy where she remains on the Editorial Board. She is also on the Board of Advisors of METI International, conducting scientific research into messaging potential extraterrestrial intelligence. She is one of an elite number of people to be endorsed by the UK Home Office as an Exceptional Talent Migrant/ World Leader in her Field. In 2015 she was awarded the prestigious Margaret Mead Award Lecture by the British Science Association in recognition of her cutting edge research. She is trained in both domestic and international mediation and has done consultancy work for the International Criminal Court and the International Court of Justice. She has a sub-specialism in women, peace and security and gender based violence. She is a Trustee of Luton All Women’s Centre.