Is Commercial Space Travel Doomed?

Last week was a dark week for commercial space travel. In the wake of two major accidents involving commercial space projects, many around the world are wondering if the whole concept of commercial space travel is doomed.
Does the dream live on? Sir Richard Branson, whose Virgin Group owns Virgin Galactic, certainly thinks so. At a press conference held near the site of last week’s fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, he offered some perspective:

In the early days of aviation there were incidents and then aviation became very safe… Once we’ve found what went wrong, if we can overcome it, we will make absolutely certain that the dream lives on.

Virgin Galactic wasn’t the only commercial space company to experience a major accident last week.
Most people had never even heard of Orbital Sciences Corporation (NYSE: ORB) until one of its Anteres rockets exploded just seconds after lift-off from a launch pad in Virginia.
The mission was part of a contract between Orbital Sciences Corp and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to run resupply missions to the International Space Station (ISS). This particular launch was to be the third of eight resupply missions contracted by NASA.
For some context, let’s take a look at recent commercial space travel accidents.

  • October 31: Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashes, killing one pilot and injuring another. The flight was the ship’s 55th test.
  • October 28: Orbital Sciences Corp’s Anteres rocket explodes shortly after liftoff. The rocket was to deliver 5,000 pounds of supplies to the International Space Station.
  • August 24: Blue Origin, a company funded by Amazon (Nasdaq: AMZN) CEO Jeff Bezos, has its own failed test flight,  with its experimental rocket losing control at around 1.2 times the speed of sound and the test was “terminated.”
  • August 22: SpaceX’s Falcon 9R rocket explodes during a test over Texas. The experimental rocket experienced an “anomaly” during the test and was destroyed using its self-destruct function.

As you can see, the high-profile incidents from last week are just two of several recent incidents.
If you continue looking further back, there have been many other setbacks experienced by these commercial space companies in the form of crashes and crash landings. Why the increased scrutiny now?
Several factors played into these accidents grabbing major headlines. For starters, the Orbital Sciences rocket was not a test flight; it was an actual mission to deliver supplies to the ISS. And not only did the Virgin Galactic crash involve a manned spacecraft but one of the two test pilots died in the accident.
When I say “commercial space travel” I’m really talking about two rather different things.
The first is for-profit corporations picking up where governmental space agencies have left off. In recent years NASA has begun funneling its money into private contractors rather than developing its own rocket propulsion, astronaut shuttling and cargo delivery systems. This trend shows no signs of slowing, despite the recent accidents.
The second definition for commercial space travel is better characterized as “private space travel.”
Whereas SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are competing for NASA and other space agency contracts, Virgin Galactic caters to individuals who wish to experience space travel and are willing to pay a lot for the experience. A seat in Virgin Galactic’s private spacecraft goes for over $250,000. I would argue that this “private space travel” depends a lot more on consumer views about the safety of space travel and is, therefore, much more susceptible to fears brought on by the recent incidents.
Still, the dream of commercial space travel is certainly not dead. Richard Branson reported that none of Virgin Galactic’s pre-paid customers have asked for their money back. Undoubtedly, accidents will happen when companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp charge forward in this new frontier. And like the aviation pioneers that came before them, these test-pilots, engineers and their financiers seem steady in their resolve to out-smart the complexities and the dangers to make commercial space travel a reality.

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