Interstellar queller: Why Virgin Galactic won't have a Hollywood ending

Space travel is fraught with danger and peril. Which is why it should never be considered as a joyride for the wealthy.
Written by Jason Perlow, Senior Contributing Writer

America is fascinated with manned spaceflight. Our collective technological achievements, in many ways, derive from our pursuit to fly into the great beyond — be it advancements in aircraft, computers or next-generation composite materials, we owe most of this to our space program.

Our inspiration for much of this comes from science fiction adaptations in film and television. Arthur C. Clarke, the man who is credited with the invention of the telecommunications satellite, wrote a short story called The Sentinel in 1948 that later became the basis for the film 2001: A Space Odyssey, which had its theatrical release in 1968, after a four-year collaboration with director and filmmaker Stanley Kubrick.

Approximately a year after that, man landed on the moon. For real.

Flash forward to November of 2014, approximately 45 years later. The moon missions are long behind us — we've since completed the space shuttle program and sent it out to pasture, and even the driving force for the space race itself became irrelevant after the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992.

And because we had to retire the shuttles, our former Cold War enemies, the Russians, are now the equivalent of Uber for arranging travel to the International Space Station.

In addition to NASA's own beleaguered SLS effort that it hopes will again provide us native heavy launch capability, returning us to the moon and beyond, private companies, such as SpaceX and Orbital Sciences are building and testing commercial launch platforms and spacecraft to send America's astronauts into space without Russia's assistance — because over 20 years after the conclusion of the Cold War we again find ourselves at odds with them.

SpaceX has successfully launched a number of re-supply missions to the ISS using its Falcon 9 rocket and Dragon robotic capsule. Orbital Sciences has not done as well.

In 2014 we also get another grandiose space exploration film with Christopher Nolan's Interstellar, which hit theaters this week.

While reactions to the film have been mixed, a number of reviewers have compared it favorably to 2001: A Space Odyssey, for its cinematic splendor in its depiction of spaceflight, its attention to realism (including a mathematically perfect depiction of a black hole) as well as an equally mind-bending but hope-inspiring ending.

If Interstellar and 2001 teach us anything, though, it's that space travel is dangerous. The stress tolerances and mechanical complexity that is required to send a spacecraft into orbit and keep people alive — from the propulsion systems to the airframes themselves, and the life support systems — are the cutting edge of human engineering.

Nobody except a professional astronaut should strap themselves into what amounts to a guided missile with a semi-solid fuel rocket in it.

That human beings are capable of designing such things should fill us with awe. And yet our mastery of space travel is anything but complete or foolproof. It makes regular air travel, let alone the supersonic flight routinely achieved by military aircraft, look like a walk in the park.

Air accidents happen all the time, but it's a far less risky proposition than sending people into space.

Which is why it should come as no surprise to anyone that the Virgin Galactic's SpaceshipTwo, despite a solid technical foundation from the highly talented engineering team at Scaled Composites disintegrated at 45,000 feet during a flight test last week.

Although the NTSB has not filed its formal report on the crash, which could take them up to a year, complications with the airframe accidentally transforming into its "feathering" mode in the atmosphere at near-supersonic speeds rather than during its re-entry phase for which it was designed has been the focus of the initial investigation.  

One of the pilots, Mike Alsbury died instantly and the other, Peter Siebold who miraculously parachuted to safety was injured and is currently recovering.

Like the many generations of test pilots who came before them, like Chuck Yeager and Scott Crossfield, Alsbury and Siebold knew the risks. Flying exotic and unproven aircraft is dangerous, but somebody has to do it. That's what The Right Stuff was all about, in case you want to see another great film.

But Alsbury and Siebold accepted the consequences because they lived to do this, and they were professionals. And they knew that in order to advance spaceflight a certain amount of risk taking is acceptable. 

Both of these men are heroes and should be inspirations for all of us. But the SpaceShipTwo should never fly again, and Virgin Galactic should shut its doors, permanently.

Space travel is not a plaything. Nobody, with the exception of professionals, should be going onboard exotic, bleeding-edge rocket planes on sub-orbital flights, or hitching rides on a Soyuz. It doesn't matter if you paid $250,000 per ticket or $34M for the privilege. It doesn't matter if you are Justin Beiber or Anousheh Ansari.

There's absolutely no compelling reason why people that haven't gone through years of training should put their lives at risk, for the sole purpose of having an ultra-privileged thrill ride.

Even if they sign agreements not to litigate or to waive their life insurance policies should they die as a result of a mishap, nobody except a professional astronaut should strap themselves into what amounts to a guided missile with a semi-solid fuel rocket in it.

It could be argued that in the early days of flight in the early part of the 20th century, when airplanes were dangerous flimsy things made of cloth and wood, that newspaper writers probably had the same objections and criticisms about anyone getting into one with the exception of military personnel. And that would be true.

But we've learned so much in the last hundred years of flight. We know when risks should be taken and when they should not. We've learned there's a fine line between test flights and utter recklessness.

Knowing what we know about the Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites space tourism platform, and after last week's crash, I can only classify it as utterly reckless.

Virgin Galactic has vowed to continue despite their tragic losses. I would like the Scaled Composites airframe design to continue to be developed, if not simply for the advancement of aerospace science.

Someday, hypersonic spaceplanes may allow civilians to travel affordably and safely across continents and to the other side of the world with aircraft not unlike the SpaceShipTwo, as routinely as we fly aboard Boeing 757 airliners from Miami to Seattle. New York to Tokyo in 45 minutes would truly be something. 

But the day when that sort of thing is a reality rather than the domain of science fiction movies and television is a very long time from now, if it ever happens at all.

The reality of space tourism is not scenes of glistening spaceships hurtling through the cosmos envisaged by a Hollywood director and scored to a thundering Hans Zimmer orchestral soundtrack.

Reality is burned wreckage in the middle of the Mojave desert and the cries of ruined families.

I sincerely hope that Sir Richard Branson and Scaled Composites come to their senses, and quickly. Or Wall Street and the American public may have to do it for them.

Should space be solely the domain of professional astronauts? Talk Back and Let Me Know.

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