Imagine, for a moment, that Virgin Galactic's spaceship hadn't crashed last week. If the test had gone off without a hitch, the next person to ride in SpaceShipTwo was supposed to have been Virgin founder Richard Branson. After that, it would have been paying customers.
Friday's incident was a reality check: Excitement for Virgin Galactic's space tourism was approaching an all-time high as it was looking like the company was closer than ever to actually starting commercial operations. Then, the crash, and people remembered that SpaceShipTwo was undertaking just its fourth rocket engine-powered test flight ever. This is a dangerous, expensive, difficult business.
when it comes to space, 'trust me,' just isn't good enough
"This just shows that you need to test fly these things more than two or three times before you start taking up paid customers," Marco Caceres, a space industry analyst at the Teal Group Corporation told me. "Thing is, these flights are very expensive and most governments and companies can't afford more than a few test flights."
The problem here isn't that Branson is trying to take consumers to space: It's that he's selling a product before it's ready, passing on the risk of investing in this technology on to consumers who really have no idea what they're getting or when and if it'll actually ever happen.
We've seen this happen before, with failed Kickstarters that failed to deliver what they're promising. For roughly 15 years, Branson has been hyping the idea of commercial space tourism, and has already sold upwards of 700 tickets. Problem is, they're not funding a $500,000 video game, a new musical album or a new piece of consumer electronics. Virgin Galactic customers are spending $250,000 each, and they're going to have to eventually trust Branson with their lives.
Virgin Galactic's situation is really similar to that of Mars One and Inspiration Mars, two projects that asked people to donate money to unproven technology that promise unprecedented and unaccomplished feats of engineering. Inspiration Mars is already dead, and Mars One hasn't tested much of anything yet and has to be looked at as a longshot at best.
There's little doubt that someone will eventually offer space tourism in a safe way, and accidents like Friday's are a tragic but inevitable part of that path forward—space travel, like air travel, is unlikely to ever be 100 percent safe. But Branson's business model (like those of countless Kickstarters) necessarily trades on little-tested technologies, outsized promises, and a lot of faith.
In an interview with Branson, a journalist with Sky News noted that "a big part of Galactic's business model is generating publicity—at the end of the day, it's a business model that relies on tourism, and to attract tourism, you need good press."
That goes a long way toward explaining why, in Branson's words, Virgin Galactic's first tourist flights are always just around the corner and not, say, years and years off. In 2004, its first flight was supposed to be in 2007; in 2006 it was supposed to be 2008; in 2011 the "final tests" were planned for 2012.
It's not sexy, and it's not necessarily good business to suggest that it's going to take a decade worth of testing and engineering before it's safe to take untrained civilians into space. But the conservative approach—mastering unmanned spaceflight first, like SpaceX and other companies are trying to do—is probably what's ultimately going to get the job done.
And that's really the problem with commercial space tourism, at the moment. Few besides Branson, XCOR, another company that is preselling suborbital trips to space, and Space Adventures (a company that no one has heard much from lately but that wants to take tourists to the moon in four years) appear to be ready and willing to spend the money to get a project like this off the ground.
That's why you see companies like SpaceX and Orbital Sciences (which had its own commercial space mishap last week) trying to perfect space travel in an unmanned way, with extremely lucrative NASA contracts, before they move on to trying to sell a product to the general public.
What's next for Virgin Galactic is anyone's guess. Caceres estimates that Galactic won't be able to fly for at least a year, and who knows how many customers will ask for refunds.
To its credit, before Friday's disaster, Virgin has had some limited success in actually testing the thing. It will probably forge ahead. But for consumers, it's becoming increasingly clear that when it comes to space, "trust me," just isn't good enough.