Space Is Hard

Space is hard – but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together.

–Richard Branson, founder and CEO, Virgin Galactic

Last week was a tough one for commercial spaceflight.

Last Tuesday morning, an unmanned Antares rocket, operated by a company called Orbital Sciences Corporation and packed with supplies and experiments bound for the space station, exploded in a spectacular fireball seconds after rising from its launch pad. The latest report I’ve found indicates the launch safety officers deliberately detonated the rocket after its first-stage propulsion system failed, as a precaution to keep it from going down over a populated area. The cause of the failure is still under investigation. This was the third of eight cargo missions Orbital is contracted to perform for NASA; the company’s competitor SpaceX will reportedly fill the gap created in the resupply schedule. Also affected by the Antares disaster is Planetary Resources, the company that wants to mine the asteroids; its Arkyd 3 test platform was aboard the doomed rocket as well. You can read more about that here, if you’re interested.

As if losing the Antares wasn’t enough of a blow, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo then broke up during a test flight on Friday, resulting in the death of one of its pilots and serious injuries to the other. It appears the rocket plane’s braking system somehow deployed earlier than it should have, although investigators still haven’t said conclusively that was the cause of the accident, or have any idea of why the system deployed.

Predictably, there was an almost immediate torrent of op-eds and online commentary denouncing private space operations (Time had a memorably galling headline, “Enough with Amateur-Hour Space Flight“), and even calling for an end to manned spaceflight altogether. “People are dying!” the cries go. People could die, if something like that Antares blast happens to, say, a crewed Dragon capsule. To which I reply, yes, they are. and they could, and that’s tragic… but how many sailors died during the Age of Exploration? How many would-be colonists did not survive the passage from the Old World to the New? How many pioneers fell while crossing the Great Plains, or didn’t make it through their first harsh winter of homesteading? How many early aviators died trying to figure out how those new-fangled (and by our standards, appallingly fragile) aeroplanes really behaved?

Don’t misunderstand, I’m not heartless, and I certainly don’t mean to be glib about human lives. I regret and mourn every life lost in the cause of furthering a human presence in space. I certainly wouldn’t want to lose my own life in such an accident, or a friend or family member’s. But I firmly believe those deaths are honorable and meaningful. Because I believe passionately in the cause they died for.

Whenever this subject comes up, I always think of a moment from the original Star Trek series, a scene that’s come to be known to fans as the “risk speech”:

Now, obviously Captain Kirk’s soliloquy here is tailored to the details of a specific storyline. When he says “risk is our business,” he’s referring to the crew of the Enterprise, and to Starfleet, and the risk he’s speaking of is first contact with the alien species of the week. But what I hear in these words from a 46-year-old television segment is nothing less than my vision of the entire human race. Risk is our business, as a species. I believe the urge to explore, to wander, to want to know what’s over the horizon, is built into our very DNA. Pushing back new frontiers is dangerous… but as Kirk says, the possible returns are immense. Too immense to ignore, whether you believe we need to get off this rock in order to preserve our species in the event of a planetary-scale catastrophe, or you think there’s money to be made from the resources out there, or if, like me, you just think exploration is a worthy enough goal in itself, simply for the sake of seeing what’s out there..

Virgin Galactic isn’t in quite the same category as the Apollo missions, of course. The company’s raison d’etre is to take well-heeled customers on a brief thrill ride, and nothing more. SpaceShipTwo isn’t even capable of reaching orbit — its flight plans are all merely trampoline hops up to the edge of space and back — and I’ll confess I’ve been pretty dismissive of this venture compared to, say, SpaceX and its long-term goals of sending people to Mars. (I’ll also confess that I’d be a lot more enthusiastic about Virgin Galactic if I thought there was a chance in hell that I could one day afford one of its trips.) But in the wake of this accident, I’ve done some thinking, and I’ve decided that it doesn’t matter if SpaceShipTwo is just a rich man’s folly, because the more human beings we actually put up there in the black, even if they’re only there for a few minutes, the more we become a space-faring species. And by figuring out how to do it efficiently, safely, and cost-effectively for this one purpose, we learn things that can go toward other applications. Perhaps suborbital hops like this could someday shorten travel time for ordinary civilians like myself. Perhaps there are problems we haven’t even identified yet that will be solved by things we learn now.

Look, Richard Branson, the founder and CEO of Virgin Galactic, said it perfectly in the tweet I quoted at top of this entry. Space is hard. Getting there is hard, at least with our current approach. We’ve been in this place before, after the loss of space shuttle Challenger, when everybody was stunned to suddenly realize what a rocket ship actually is: a massive load of high explosives. And again after the loss of Columbia, when everybody realized it’s as difficult to come back from space as it is to get there. That’s just how it is, at least until someone invents an antigravity drive like we see in all the movies, or builds a working space elevator. We’ve just got to accept a certain amount of risk if we’re going to open this particular frontier. And I think we are going to open it, and that we should. I think we’re going to find we really don’t have any choice. And given the economic realities of our age, we’re going to need private enterprise to be a part of the opening process. So forget all this talk of abandoning space, or just leaving it to NASA. Let’s just suck it up, find out what went wrong with the Antares and SpaceShipTwo, mourn our losses, and then move on…