The Loss of SpaceShip Two

As many folk have heard, SpaceShipTwo was lost in an accident the other day.  One of the pilots was killed, the other severely injured.

Wired Magazine put out an article decrying the loss, condemning Virgin Galactic for risking, and in this case losing, lives in pursuit of a “boondoggle”–providing tourist trips into space for rich people.

How could they miss the point so thoroughly?

A lot of the development in early aviation centered around barnstorming and air races.  The barnstormers were mainly entertainers.  But they got people interested in flight and flying.  How many of those who would go on to become aviators and aviation engineers got bitten by that bug watching somebody in a surplus Jenny doing loops over Old McDonald’s cornfield?  How many got infected by “airplane rides, $5 for five minutes”?

And air races?  Entertainment again.  And it certainly wasn’t bloodless.  Some of those planes (most of them?) were deathtraps.  Yet a lot of the technology that made its way into the fighters of world war ii came right out of those air racers.

In some ways I think it’s a shame that post-war air racing, at least in the so-called “unlimited” class (well, unlimited so long as you’re limited to propellers and piston engines) settled on souped up surplus WWII fighters and not new original designs.  And according to an illustrated history of air racing I read many years ago there was at least one post-war race that featured surplus F-86’s.  Would have been nice if they had continued that but I suspect the problem was money, oh, and the government not letting later airframes loose into civilian hands in numbers enough to make racing them viable. (There  was, before it was lost in an accident, one F-104 in flyable condition in civilian hands.  Who could he race?)

You know, for all Jim Bede’s flaws as an aircraft designer, somebody should have been designing aircraft like the BD-5J and BD-10 (just doing a better job at it).  Now if somebody like the Rutan’s had turned their hand to high performance jet aircraft for the civilian, hobbyist, market….

In any case, pioneering is dangerous, whatever the field.  Those who lose sight of that, and lose the willingness to accept the danger, are doomed to stagnation and ennui.

So keep the dream alive.

13 thoughts on “The Loss of SpaceShip Two”

  1. I think you hit on the key problem with getting innovative civilian aircraft, the FAA. Developing new aircraft for the civilian market has gotten ridiculously expensive because of all of the hoops that manufacturers have to jump through. Then you throw in the legal liabilities and it becomes really difficult to make a profit off of innovative designs. There is a reason that almost all private aircraft are based off of a design that is over 50 years old.


  2. There are still F104s flying.
    The Starfighters own 3, and last I heard were still flying fairly regularly supporting research and doing the occasional air show. I had the opportunity to fuel two planes when I worked at an FBO at New Orleans Int. They had just gotten the third and it was not yet finished. One of the pilots, who was training the owners passed away in a crash some time ago, not in a 104, and was who showed me what to do to fuel them. “I need the fuel truck and two five gallon buckets” The one plane let you know it was full by leaking out onto the ground. They finally got tips for the wings on all of them so this should be less of an issue.
    I watched the two seater almost go lawn dart when the chutes did not deploy on landing. They used all of N.O.'s 10,000 foot runway and a good portion of the apron.
    Racing one would be a bit rough on the Reno course. a bit like an F1 or Indy car on Bristol.


  3. I think that the charge (and there have been several because that's what upset people *do*) that Virgin Galactic was negligent somehow entirely miss is that failure through negligence is failure and failure is unfathomably expensive, no matter how cheaply one might hold life. The fact that they were trying something risky (to the extent this charge is true in some way above the risk of doing this at all) the notion that someone would be careless about it is irrational.

    This isn't, after all, the Soviet Union, where anyone can force a pilot-astronaut to fly when the pilot knows a disaster is looming.


  4. The pictures I've seen of the breakup of Spaceship Two don't tell you a thing. An aerodynamic breakup at high speed looks a lot like an engine failure. I've heard that hybrid engines can fail if the solid fuel casting isn't homogeneous. The casting can fracture, increasing combustion area, which in turn increases pressure in the engine past the failure point.

    The fact is, the vessel had a catastrophic failure, and the crew compartment remained intact. The fact that one pilot was able to eject means the whole vessel did not come apart during the incident. This is a major point of success in design. I note that one of the pictures showed what appeared to be the majority of the central fuselage, deformed by impact, on the ground.


  5. As long as the pilots gave informed consent to the risk–and I do believe they did–then there's no “negligence” involved. Testing new high performance aircraft (and spacecraft) has always been a dangerous proposition, and always will be.


  6. My prediction is that the investigation will produce the politically expedient result. Tendency is to call any accident “pilot error” but it might be considered more advantageous to claim “negligence” on the part of the designers/builders in an effort to shut Virgin Galactic down.

    Hell, I'd go up tomorrow (or as soon as they get another one built) if they'd have me.


  7. The backbiting, blaming and pussyfooting around is a crime against those who died. I was deeply saddened that there was no large voice who did these men honor for their sacrifice. What a stain on our “mainstream” culture.

    They need a good sendoff, for the sake of our future as a species.

    I grew up with the children of no-kidding rocket scientists. They were the people with whom I watched Challenger explode. When the school offered to provide counseling (because those who died were friends and family), the parents banded together and said THEY would choose who would do this counseling. Instead of having it at school, the student body was divided up, and went to various homes of the scientists. Each had a BBQ, and a talk with all the kids. They told the stories of how these men and women were great, and how they wanted to be remembered, and how they were just as honorable as the men who die for our country's freedom. Because aiming at the stars is a bid for continued freedom, just as much as facing off against those who would oppose us. Indeed, they did not just die for freedom, but for science and human accomplishment.


    1. That’s funny – we all watched the Challenger Incident as it happened on TV (happened at school if you were in a Science class at that particular moment, we usually watched Shuttle launches,) and no-one offered any of us counselling.

      We talked about it for a while afterward, decided it was a pretty damned horrific thing to have happened, coined a couple of jokes afterward (gallows humour is a defense mechanism to coping with death & destruction, don’t you know?) and all fervently wished that the basic programme itself would continue. I never heard of anyone needing to take counselling as a result of watching it happen – despite the collective “Holy SHIT!” reaction from all over the building.

      Fortunately, it did. Until a future President (I shan’t name names) ended up cancelling the programme through some means or another. (The only reason to cancel the STS programme legitimately would be because we had invented something BETTER to replace it, in my mind.)

      I’m happy to see the beginnings of the privatization of space, and I’m wondering why it’s taken so long – at least the cancellation of the STS programme should have gotten things moving rather more quickly than this, and there’s no reason that private space development couldn’t have proceeded alongside the government programme (and therefore be somewhat less subject to government rules.) It’s just a pity there’s only two major players in the field right now, and one of them’s a Briton – I guess we’re in need of topping-up on rocket scientists…

      Then again, I’m also wondering why we haven’t been back to Luna since the 1970s – there’s no sane reason why we shouldn’t have been having regular trips back-and-forth, using Luna has a springboard to explore the rest of the system, and probably space tourism (most likely in a three-leg trip – Earth surface-Earth orbit, Earth orbit-Luna-orbit, Luna orbit-Luna surface. It’s more efficient to do regular trips in three legs with three different ships, since you need three different basic designs to do the job. Reusable air-takeoff to orbital docking to air-landing, reusable orbit-orbit, and reusable airless-takeoff to orbital docking to airless-landing. Making one ship to do all three tasks, and do it regularly – especially with PAYING customers – would be inefficient.) I can’t think of any reason why I shouldn’t have been able to buy a tourist ticket for a month on Luna fifteen years ago!


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