What SpaceShipTwo’s Crash Means for Virgin Galactic And Private Spaceflight

Private spaceflight may see tighter federal regulation

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Billionaire Richard Branson is interviewed after unveiling Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo in Mojave, California December 7, 2009. PHIL McCARTEN/Reuters/Corbis

On Friday the experimental spacecraft SpaceShipTwo crashed into the California desert, killing one of its pilots and seriously injuring the other. Over the weekend more information began to roll out about the crash, and writers began to ask the big, underlying question: What does this mean for private spaceflight?

First off, the loss of the ship is a blow for Virgin Galactic's plans. The company was hoping to get its first paying customers into orbit by early next year, but that plan is now functionally impossible. According to Jason Koebler for Motherboard, “SpaceShipTwo was Virgin Galactic's only spaceship. They don't have another one.”

No ship, no flights. Virgin Galactic, says Motherboard, is back to the drawing board.

In the meantime, the National Transportation Safety Board, the federal agency leading the investigation into what went wrong with SpaceShipTwo, had some preliminary information to share. Though the agency still has “months and months of investigation” to do, the initial analysis of the crash seems to suggest that pilot error may have played a roll, says Al Jazeera:

SpaceShipTwo's rotating tail boom, a key safety feature for re-entering the atmosphere, inadvertently rotated early, said Christopher Hart, the acting chairman of the NTSB.

...The system, which folds the vehicle in half to create more atmospheric drag, was unlocked early by the co-pilot but a second command to move the feather handle into position was not sent, he said.

No one is looking to prematurely put the blame on the pilots. But if the crash was caused by human error, rather than there being something seriously wrong with the spaceship itself, that's actually, in a way, good news for Virgin Galactic.

The crash could certainly have consequences for people's confidence in the company or even in the idea of private spaceflight, says National Geographic. But it's already pushed regulators to say that they'll be looking more closely at these flights:

The Federal Aviation Administration announced Friday that it is investigating the crash, and Listner says the crash means the fledgling space tourism industry will now come under closer regulatory scrutiny.

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