Interstellar Failure

For those of us who lie awake in the dead of night, idly dreaming of warp engines, hyperdrive generators and boldly going where no-one has gone before, it’s been an unfortunate couple of weeks.

First, NASA’s mercifully unmanned Antares rocket launch ended disastrously when the space craft clawed its way a scant 100 metres into the air before promptly crashing back onto its own launch pad and exploding in spectacular fashion. When your ambition is to see mankind bravely traversing the cosmos and exploring the gulf of deep space, it’s somewhat depressing when a rocket built by the world’s foremost group of engineers, boffins, scientists and all around egg-heads can barely get itself airborne.

Adding to the sour taste the incident left in the mouths of space enthusiasts the world over was the official statement NASA published on their website and twitter feed, writing the failed launch off as a ‘mishap’. No NASA, a “mishap” is discovering that the cat has peed all over the living room carpet, the firey obliteration of a rocket carrying close to a billion dollars-worth of fun space equipment and cool experiments is an unmitigated disaster!

Worse still was the loss of the Virgin Galactic space vehicle which exploded over the Mojave desert less than a week after the Antares launch when its engines combusted during a test flight, killing one pilot and seriously injuring another who was able to parachute to safety.

The brain child of Sir Richard Branson, the Virgin Galactic programme is the first serious attempt to develop a commercial space programme to transport paying customers beyond the reaches of our humble little planet. In the wake of the Mojave crash the scheme has come under heavy criticism. A senior pilot, who parted ways with Virgin Galactic in 2007 has come forward citing that he always felt the craft’s fuel was ‘unstable’. Reports have already begun circulating the internet, claiming the craft used in the Mojave flight was powered by a new and inadequately tested fuel that ought to have been scrutinised in a lab just a little longer before being put through its paces at 45,000 feet.

Obviously, space travel, or even just preparing for space travel is stupidly dangerous by its very nature. Of earth’s 450 spacefarers, 34 have perished in training scenarios, hazardous re-entries into the earth’s atmosphere or during missions in space itself. This puts the fatality rate for astronauts and cosmonauts at roughly 7.5 percent, more than double that of US soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. Strapping yourself into a space craft is literally twice as dangerous as trading bullets with Taliban insurgents in Helmand province.

It is this inherent danger that makes commercial space travel so ethically questionable, particularly when pursued in the potentially reckless idiom of Virgin Galactic. It’s one thing to expect a trained astronaut, an individual with decades of training and flight experience to be shot into orbit in a space craft built by the finest minds his or her government can muster. It’s quite another for Branson to invite civilian passengers to take the same risk. Even in the wake of the Mojave disaster, Virgin Galactic and Branson are eager to continue pushing their commercial space flight project citing that they’re going to ‘move forward and create a spaceship company that hopefully one day will be the marvel of the world.’

Still more depressing is the realisation that Branson is currently doing more to advance the cause of manned space flight than NASA who haven’t put a person into space since 2011 when the shuttle programme was dissolved and who presently have no manned launches scheduled. Whilst it’s really, really difficult to condone Virgin Galactic, at least as it exists right now, it could be argued they’re prepared to advance space flight in a manner that NASA is unwilling, or much more likely, financially unable to adopt.

However, it’s impossible to escape the sentiment that rushing the completion of a space programme to cash in on the dreams of wealthy consumers who long to travel in space is as morally repugnant as it is irresponsible. Whilst it’s great that commercial space flight is keeping the space exploration ball rolling, it’s doubtful that it’s the best way to continue our long term pursuit of space travel. Do we really want the eventual mission to Mars to be crewed by members of a wealthy elite whose only credentials were that they could afford to be aboard? What kind of space programme will we have created when the crew that makes first contact with alien life instantly tries to flog E.T. a Virgin broadband bundle for a lowly £15.50 a month?

[Matthew Crichton]

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