Traveling to space has long been undertaken by government agencies such as NASA. However. after the conclusion of the U.S. Space Shuttle program, a crop of new commercial spaceflight endeavors set their sights on going to space.
These ventures are backed by billionaire entrepreneurs, and many of them have no personal knowledge of how to get to space. These so-called “thrillonaires” with space travel ambitions include Jeff Bezos, the Amazon founder who created Blue Origin to lower the cost of space technology; Elon Musk, who founded SpaceX with the goal of reaching Mars one day; and Richard Branson, who started the space tourism company Virgin Galactic, according to The New York Times.
Two accidents that recently took place involving commercial rockets have shown there are high risks and costs associated with any spaceflight. The incidents have led many to wonder if commercial companies have to ability to take humans to space.
A Virgin Galactic space place named SpaceShipTwo suddenly and unexpectedly exploded during the middle of a test flight on Friday, Oct. 31, over the Mojave Desert, resulting in the death of one pilot, according to NBC News. Furthermore, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket, which was carrying nearly 5,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station, reportedly blew up Tuesday, Oct. 29, just seconds after it launched from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Va.
Both incidents are currently under investigation. However, National Transportation Safety Board investigators are currently probing the notion of pilot error and whether the pilots of SpaceShipTwo contributed in some way to the break-up of the spacecraft shortly after its rocket engine was ignited, according to BBC News.
As for the cause of the rocket crash on Wallops Island, Orbital Sciences representatives wrote in a press release that “evidence suggests the failure initiated in the first stage after which the vehicle lost its propulsive capability and fell back to the ground impacting near, but not on, the launch pad.”
Nonetheless, even though both these accidents are unrelated, they show that the path to space is just as difficult and dangerous for private companies as it is for government agencies. All these space initiatives are looking for ways to drastically cut the cost of space travel because experts say there is no way to make spaceflight both routine and affordable in the future.
“What you are seeing playing out are different experiments, by different groups, trying different approaches,” Scott Pace, director of the Space Policy Institute at George Washington University and former assistant administrator at NASA, told The New York Times.
Pace went on to say, “to me, this does not call into question the basic logic of relying more on the private sector.”
We have no other choice but to push to privatize spaceflight as NASA has been forced by the Obama Administration and other entities to shut down the Space Shuttle and redefine its mission with tighter budgets. Today, one of NASA’s main goals is to encourage, support and fund the development of commercial space endeavors.
SpaceX and Orbital Sciences have been looking to reduce their costs in many different ways. Orbital uses refurbished engines that were built in the Soviet Union in the 1960s and 1970s, according to CNN. The engines were supposed to be destined for the moon, but they were never used and laid in storage for decades. These are the same engines under scrutiny now after the Wallops Island accident. Unfortunately, reliability and price are often tied together as NASA and these commercial companies look for cheaper ways to access space.
I would argue that as companies like Virgin Galactic and Orbital Sciences strive to make spaceflight routine, it will soon become apparent to them that there is nothing routine about going to space. It is a task that should be treated with great respect, and it may be sometime before we know if spaceflight is actually possible without a significant amount of government involvement and assistance.