Chris Dubbs is the author of Space Dogs: Pioneers of Space Travel and the coauthor (with Colin Burgess) of Animals in Space: From Research Rockets to the Space Shuttle. Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom is the Chief Impact Officer & Exec VP, Operations at Singularity University based at NASA Ames Research Park. She is also partner and consultant for International Space Consultants. Their book, Realizing Tomorrow: The Path to Private Spaceflight, is a part of the Outward Odyssey series and now available in paperback.
What a dreadful month October was for the private space industry—the loss of a life and a serious injury in the crash of SpaceShip2 and the catastrophic explosion on launch of the Antares rocket, headed to the International Space Station (ISS).
It’s worth pointing out that rockets are inherently dangerous hardware, and that accidents do happen. The Antares explosion was reminiscent of similar scenes from the 1950s, when NASA was just learning the rocket business and would regularly broadcast its failures. The worst of NASA’s accidents claimed multiple lives and put the shuttle program on hold for several years. The difference on this occasion, however, was that neither Antares nor SpaceShip2 were NASA rockets, but launch vehicles built and operated by the private space companies Orbital Sciences and Scaled Composites/Virgin Galactic. Orbital is one of two companies under contract with NASA to carry supplies to the ISS. As such this launch failure is occasion for some to second guess the NASA strategy of using private contractors. SpaceShip2, on the other hand, is a privately-built spaceplane that is being developed to support an embryonic space passenger industry that will take paying customers to the edge of space. Its tragic failure gives pause for a gut check on the viability of such a venture.
In our book Realizing Tomorrow, The Path to Private Spaceflight (Nebraska 2011) we chronicled the history of private efforts to send humans into space. We reported on the host of private companies that had gotten into the business of building their own rockets and space planes. Some of them were dreamers whose ideas never got off the drawing board. Others, such as Scaled Composites, and its commercial parent Virgin Galactic, were serious, well-funded attempts to pioneer a space flight industry.
The underlying premise of our book was that private industry can operate space services better and more cheaply than a government agency. That premise holds that NASA played a critical role in pioneering access to space when no commercial market existed for those services. Now that a commercial market has developed for launch services, NASA should stick to the science of exploring space and allow private rocket companies to serve the commercial market. And that is pretty much the direction in which things are going. The October accidents have changed none of that, nor should they.
The tragic event that claimed the life of one of Virgin Galactic’s test pilots and left another in critical condition reminds us that space is still a dangerous playground, where test pilots/astronauts put their lives on the line to achieve a higher purpose—opening the space frontier to everyone. We tend to forget the price paid in lives to develop the airplane and the air flight industry we now take for granted. The Wright brothers did not close shop when the first daring passenger was killed in an accident.
The loss of SpaceShip2 is certainly a big heartbreak to the private space flight community and will set back timing and development for Virgin Galactic. But it will not set back any of the other companies developing other vehicles for commercial space flight. Stricter rules and regulations set out by the regulatory bodies can be expected, but these are measures that need to be in place anyway to begin the certification of commercial space flights. Justin Bieber, Brad Pitt, and Angelina Jolie, who have put down deposits on Virgin Galactic space flights, will just have to stand in line a while longer.
The Antares explosion drew some minor laments on the blogs for the glory days of NASA, when it had complete control over rocket development and access to space. Some still curse quietly about the termination of the Space Shuttle program in 2011, at a time when NASA had no replacement that could reach the ISS, but became dependent on Russian rockets. Fortunately for the U.S. two private companies are taking over those duties—Orbital Sciences and SpaceX. SpaceX, after its own share of rocket failures, now operates reliable ISS resupply missions, and its founder Elon Musk has set out his own visionary space agenda.
The Antares explosion is a setback for Orbital Sciences development plans, especially in an industry where commercial success is so dependent on one’s reputation for reliably launching payloads into space. But one thing that has changed so dramatically since the Space Shuttle era (it was developed in the 1970s) is the relentless march of technology that has made it easier for new companies to bounce back from disasters. Payloads and components are getting increasingly cheaper and faster to produce and are overall better than their counterparts of a decade ago. As technology gets digitized, the exponential growth of AI, networks and computing, robotics and manufacturing has given rise to startup companies, in which two guys in a garage can now compete with companies like Boeing and Lockheed in doing R&D in areas which used to be the playground for only the big players.
The Antares rocket carried a number of new commercial initiatives—twenty-six nanosatellites from Planet Labs, a new company (2010) that currently holds the record for the largest number of deployed satellites; and the first payload from Planetary Resources, another company founded in 2010 that plans to deploy earth-imaging satellites and eventually develop the capability to mine asteroids. Companies such as PlanetLabs and Planetary Resources can conceivably suffer losses but not devastatingly fold, because their payloads are orders of magnitude less expensive than the hundreds of million dollar satellites of previous decades.
It’s called progress, and it comes at price. The private space community will mourn the loss of Scaled Composites’ heroic test pilot, and it will learn from these disastrous events. But this is but a speed bump on the drive to provide great access to the frontier of space.
-Chris Dubbs & Emeline Paat-Dahlstrom