Past Transit Tragedies Point to a Way Forward for Virgin Galactic

From a fatal Apollo fire to the sinking of the Titanic, history has a few lessons following last week’s spaceflight disasters

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is seen gliding back to Earth after its first test flight in 2010. (HO/Reuters/Corbis)
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Private spaceflight hit a large bump in the road to orbit last week, with Orbital Sciences’ rocket explosion followed days later by Virgin Galactic’s fatal spaceplane crash. But if early aviation and aerospace efforts can teach us anything, it’s that the key to surviving such tragedies is transparency and learning from any mistakes. And in a counterintuitive twist, the disasters may even increase public support for spaceflight and space tourism.

“People tend to take [spaceflight] for granted on a day-to-day basis, so when something terrible happens, many are reminded that it is something important that the country should continue trying to do,” says Valerie Neal, the space shuttle curator at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Robert Pearlman, editor of the space history and artifacts website collectSPACE.com, also thinks the industry can recover, and that Virgin Galactic could see an increase in the number of people interested in purchasing suborbital flights: “In theory, they could actually gain customers, people who want to see this activity continue and who are now motivated to put their money where their mouth is and say, ‘Hey, I want to fly. You should continue to do this. Don’t fold.’”

On October 28, an unmanned Antares rocket launched by NASA contractor Orbital Sciences Corporation exploded seconds after liftoff in Virginia. The rocket was carrying supplies for the International Space Station, among other cargo items. Just three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane crashed during a powered test flight over California’s Mojave Desert. The accident seriously injured pilot Peter Siebold and killed co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

Despite being private companies that, unlike NASA, are not obligated to disclose information about their investigations, the companies involved with the Antares and SpaceShipTwo accidents have so far been reasonably open. Orbital Sciences allowed the public to listen in via the Internet on its post-accident conference call with investors. And Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites, the company that built and tested SpaceShipTwo, are sharing information from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation into the crash.

The importance of keeping the public informed after an accident was a lesson that NASA learned the hard way, says Neal. The space agency was widely criticized for appearing to hold back information after a flash fire swept through the Apollo 1 command module during a launch rehearsal in 1967. That incident, which killed three crew members, resulted in an 18-month delay in the Apollo program and extensive redesigns of the spacecraft. NASA came under fire again in 1986 following the destruction of the space shuttle Challenger, which led to the deaths of seven astronauts. That event resulted in a hiatus in the shuttle program lasting almost three years.

“With both the Apollo 1 fire and the Challenger shuttle accident, NASA wanted to do internal investigations only and did not want to release much information out until they could tell the whole story,” says Neal. “With fast-paced news and social media, you just don’t have the luxury of doing that, because it appears that you’re hiding something or stonewalling to keep information from the public.”

NASA’s approach was different in 2003, when the Columbia space shuttle broke apart on re-entry, killing seven astronauts. The space agency not only conducted its own internal inquiry, it also readily accepted that an external group, the Columbia Accident Investigation Board, would look into the incident to ensure there was no appearance of bias or cover-up. The shuttles were still grounded for two years, but the report, released six months after the incident, helped identify missteps within NASA beyond just the physical cause of the crash.

In a similar vein, Virgin Galactic worked with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) following a 2007 rocket motor malfunction that killed three employees from Scaled Composites. And both companies are now working closely with the NTSB. The final accident report will likely be months in the making, but just days after the event, the group has already disclosed that the accident may be linked to an action called feathering, which lifts parts of the plane’s tail to slow its descent and create drag.

A piece of debris is seen at the SpaceShipTwo crash site in California on October 31. (LUCY NICHOLSON/Reuters/Corbis)

“I think that in this case, the SpaceShipTwo accident will have a sobering effect on the public and remind them that some of the problems haven’t been figured out yet,” says Neal. “But it will also be a reminder that progress is happening, and that there are people who are working to make commercial spaceflight possible.”

However, spaceflight historian Roger Launius thinks that past NASA tragedies are not useful predictors of how the SpaceShipTwo crash will impact space tourism. “The two are apple and oranges in my mind,” says Launius, who is also at the Air and Space Museum. “This was a private sector activity. It had no federal dollars associated with it whatsoever.” The Virgin Group is not a publicly traded company, and it is unclear how the disaster will affect its investor base. The crash clearly hurts Virgin Galactic’s bottom line, because SpaceShipTwo was the only craft of its kind. Branson’s team will have to build a new spaceplane and put it through even more rigorous tests, further delaying the first flights for paying tourists.

Better historical precedent for last week’s tragedies can be found by looking at other commercial ventures that ended disastrously, Launius argues, such as the sinking of the Titanic or accidents suffered by the commercial aviation industry, especially in its early days.

“Airplane crashes had a devastating effect on the industry, to the extent that people wouldn’t fly because they didn’t think it was safe,” Launius says. “The industry had to spend a lot of time trying to convince people that flying was so safe that grandma could come visit you for Christmas. There were all these ads showing that sort of thing—grandma getting out of a taxi after having just flown on TWA.” In the case of the Titanic, public outrage after the disaster led to dramatic new safety regulations for the entire maritime industry—in particular the rules regarding lifeboat availability.

Launius predicts that the space tourism industry will focus heavily on promoting the safety of its vehicles in the future. “That’s going to be their fundamental advertising campaign. It’s got to be,” he says. “People vote with their pocketbooks when it’s too risky. That may be irrational, but who said people are rational?”

The public will hold companies like Virgin Galactic to very high safety standards, Neal agrees. “Because spaceflight has been happening now for more than 50 years, I think there will be a very high bar for commercial spaceflight,” she adds. “Realistic or not, people are going to expect it to be as safe as airline flight from the beginning.”

Perhaps the broader lesson is that test flights like the one SpaceShipTwo was undertaking are necessary to ensure that commercial space travel comes as close as possible to those expectations. "This is exactly the reason that rigorous flight test programs precede operational service—to find all the flaws and bugs and failure modes and resolve them,” Neal says. “Any aircraft, rocket or spacecraft has setbacks along the way; that is how problems are discovered and systems are improved … whether in the airline industry, the military, NASA or this growing commercial space tourism industry. Flight is tough and spaceflight is even tougher. There are countless things that can go wrong, and testing, testing, testing is how they get resolved."

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