Virgin Galactic crash: setback for space tourism?

It could take up to a year to find out what went wrong

Nearly all the pieces of SpaceShipTwo, which crashed on Friday with the loss of the life of one of the pilots and a second seriously injured, have been retrieved from California’s Mojave Desert. Initial media reports suggest the accident could have been triggered by pilot error, but a full investigation may take up to a year.

Friday’s flight was hugely significant for the Virgin Galactic project and for the future of commercial space tourism. This was only the second time the experimental aircraft had fired its rocket engine. Technicians had opted for fuel that burned polyamide-based plastic grain instead of a rubber-type product. Friday was the first time the plastic fuel had been used in the air.

The accident is a huge blow for Virgin boss Sir Richard Branson, who has put large amounts of his own money into the project. More than anyone, he knows that safety and public confidence are vital. Around 700 people, from Tom Hanks to Justin Bieber, have bought tickets for future Virgin Galactic flights.

But it’s unlikely the dream of space tourism will end. Other similar ventures are continuing.

“I’ve been in this business a long time and the industry that has chosen to invest at this phase of our career, and the new generation that is joining us, is highly motivated,” says Stuart Witt, CEO and general manager of Mojave Air and Space Port, where SpaceShipTwo was based.

“[They’re] challenging and inquisitive people. And even though we have a preponderance of this new industry here in Mojave, this industry is sprinkled around the globe; it’s a borderless, global industry that is interested in the commercialisation [of] – and greater access to – space. My message to them is stay the course. This business is worthy business.”


[image courtesy Virgin Galactic]