During a flight last week, the Virgin Galactic test spaceplane VSS Enterprise broke apart in flight, killing test pilot Mike Alsbury. The 39-year old left behind his wife of 12 years and two young children.
The Enterprise was a Model 339 SpaceShipTwo (SS2) suborbital spaceplane. The SS2 is designed to carry six passengers (at $250,000 per ticket) at speeds of up to Mach 3.5 on a suborbital trajectory soaring 68 miles above Earth's surface. There, passengers enjoy a glimpse of the Earth from space and a few minutes of weightlessness.
Hours after the crash, Adam Rogers at Wired published an article arguing that "When various corporate representatives eulogize those two pilots as pioneers who were helping to cross the Final Frontier, that should make you angry. That pilot died not for space but for a luxury service provider."
In his piece, Rogers professes his hopes for the future of space exploration. He commends the pilots for their bravery, the engineers for their skills, and both for their dedication. Rogers doesn't think space is stupid. On the contrary, he loves it. And either because of or despite that, he said Virgin Galactic's program is merely "the world's most expensive roller coaster."
Despite the fact that "various corporate representatives" will be eulogizing only one pilot instead of the two Rogers mentions — Peter Siebold, the other pilot, was injured but survived — Rogers touches on a real problem with space: Its magical draw. For some, space exploration is license to dream of utopia. It's like buying a lottery ticket, a way to daydream about a better world.
Likewise, space exploration is viewed as heroic. Ever since the dawn of the space age and the creation of the heroic titans of the US space program — the original seven Mercury astronauts and all who followed — space has been the place for heroes possessing the Right Stuff.
But this utopian and heroic view of space is incomplete.
In reality, massive endeavors like space exploration are ruled by three buzzkill disciplines: engineering, accounting, and law. They are not utopian or heroic — nor are they merciful or compassionate. Satisfying them requires enormous amounts of work, compromise, and concession. And no space program can succeed without satisfying all three.
SpaceShipTwo isn't about tourism — that is simply a revenue stream. For starters, it can test equipment in zero-g before sending it to the International Space Station.
Accounting and law cannot exist outside of the human experience, while engineering can be described as the process through which humans attempt to harness physics. Because all three are human disciplines, a space program will be covered with the grubby fingerprints of the people who spend countless hours making it a reality.
The professionals who work in the trenches day after day and decade after decade are the people who leave those grubby fingerprints. They know all that went into making space real, and they are glad — and maybe even a little amazed — that it worked at all. However, people with fanciful views of space become upset when their unblemished utopian and heroic ideal turns out to be covered in those fingerprints.
Rogers stomachs the reality of space long enough to (grudgingly) admire the Apollo program. But apparently SpaceShipTwo is too cynical. The "various corporate representatives" are soulless faces of "a luxury service provider." This is not going to space with the Right Stuff. It's "the aerospace version of Beluga caviar."
Never mind the fact that the various corporate representatives are in the business of making space a reality to the public because they love space just as much as Rogers. Virgin Galactic President Steve Isakowitz was once a NASA Deputy Administrator. Before George Whitesides became CEO of Virgin Galactic, he was Chief of Staff for current NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, and before that he was executive director of the National Space Society, one of the world's largest space non-profits.
They are intelligent people who love space so much that they made it their profession. They are not bilking money from thrill seekers at an amusement park.
Virgin Galactic is a company that combines intelligent people, an interest in space, a pile of cash, and a willingness to take risks. And to make sure all of those intelligent people interested in space continue to have a pile of cash with which to finance their risks, Virgin Galactic created a business model.
In other words, people like Isakowitz and Whitesides, propelled by their love of space, have been working hard to figure out how to satisfy engineering, accounting, and law. That is real. Rogers' notion of space, unsullied by at least two of those three disciplines, is not.
SpaceShipTwo isn't about tourism — that is simply a revenue stream. SpaceShipTwo can haul anything from tourists to science experiments to cheese, and so it can do much more than be a simple passenger service. Short-duration suborbital microgravity flights have other applications, like testing equipment in zero-g before sending it to the International Space Station (ISS). SpaceShipTwo could also be a platform for preliminary scientific investigations to see what questions merit the higher costs of answering them on the ISS.
In addition, the technology development and operational knowledge associated with SpaceShipTwo, like hybrid rocket engines and high-tempo spaceport operations, lay groundwork for future development. Virgin's satellite launch vehicle, LauncherOne, is slated to fly in 2016 and will leverage technology development currently underway. And beyond SpaceShipTwo there is SpaceShipThree. Details are scarce, but SpaceShipThree may be a suborbital transport (perhaps one day offering a two-hour flight from New York to Tokyo), itself a stepping stone that would lay groundwork for evolution into an orbital launch vehicle.
And so SpaceShipTwo is akin to Alan Shepard's first suborbital flight in the Mercury program. That flight eventually led to the Apollo landing on the moon — though Rogers may not find this a compelling argument, since he describes Apollo as a Cold War "propaganda front."
Rogers does admit to one "legitimate" reason for space exploration: "To get humanity off our native planet" before humanity goes extinct. Fine — but we don't know how that will actually happen, if it ever does. It could be a purely government-funded program, like NASA. It could be a private-public partnership, like the one that SpaceX has with NASA. Or it could derive from Virgin Galactic's approach.
We have no way of knowing, especially this far in advance, which approach (or combination of approaches) will be deemed worthy in the eyes of the engineers, accountants, and lawyers. However, we do know that whichever project satisfies the three disciplines will inevitably be blemished by lots of grubby fingerprints.
The problem with deciding that space is only valid when it meets this or that criteria for purity is that as a human effort, space exploration will never be pure enough to satisfy. And after every loss and tragedy, there's always someone who can't wait to announce how unhappy that lack of purity is. They love space and they love science — except when it's real.
Denigrating the projects that actual professionals work on in order to make space a reality may be an important part of free speech and open debate. But expressing that contempt on the same day a wife became a widow and two children lost their father is more crass than helpful. And it certainly isn't a great way to support arguments about which attempts to make human hopes and dreams a reality are or aren't sufficiently pure of heart.
Follow Ryan Faith on Twitter: @Operation_Ryan