It could take a year before investigators know what happened to the rocket-propelled vehicle designed to take wealthy amateur astronauts to the edge of space for a few minutes of weightlessness and spectacular views.
John Logsdon, retired space policy director at George Washington University, puts it more bluntly. "It's a real setback to the idea that lots of people are going to be taking joyrides into the fringes of outer space any time soon," he told Fox News.
Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) are on the scene in California’s Mojave Desert, examining scattered wreckage and waiting to talk with surviving pilot Peter Siebold, who is hospitalized with serious injuries but reportedly able to communicate. Michael Tyner Alsbury, the other test pilot, died in the accident.
Acting NTSB chairman Christopher Hart told a press conference Saturday that this is the agency’s first time leading the investigation of a space launch involving people onboard. The brief flight and accident likely were well-documented by cameras on SpaceShipTwo, carrier aircraft WhiteKnightTwo, and chase aircraft.
Among other things, the accident will focus on SpaceShipTwo’s rocket fuel. Scaled Composites, the vehicle’s designer and builder, had recently switched solid fuel types from one based on rubber to one that uses plastic pellets.
Within two minutes of its release from the carrier aircraft, it became obvious that something was wrong with SpaceShipTwo, which experienced an explosion, breaking up in flight and scattering parts over several miles of desert floor. Mr. Siebold apparently survived by parachute, but Mr. Alsbury’s body was found inside part of the aircraft.
Travel to the edge of space and beyond has never been without risk.
In the early days of the US program, rockets blew up on the launch pad or shortly after launch. Astronauts Virgil “Gus” Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee were killed in a fire aboard the Apollo 1 capsule on the ground at Cape Canaveral in 1967. Two Space Shuttles and their crews were lost during the most dangerous part of flight – Challenger during launch in 1986 and Columbia during reentry in 2003.
The potential for danger to civilian space passengers became real with the death of high school teacher Christa McAuliffe in the Challenger disaster.
Space tourism has been a dream of Mr. Branson and other entrepreneurs viewed as visionary by their investors as well as those wealthy enough to spend the $250,000 being charged to get on the waiting list of those Branson’s company called “future astronauts.”
Some 700 people have signed up, including cosmologist Stephen Hawking as well as such Hollywood figures as Justin Bieber, Ashton Kutcher, and Russell Brand. The company reports receiving $90 million from about 700 prospective passengers. So far, Branson said Saturday, no one has asked for a refund.
Branson's space tourism effort is not without critics. Writes aviation specialist Clive Irving in the Daily Beast:
“There are many consequences to this failure. Not the least is what it implies for the financing of the project. After years of delays the costs have gone beyond a billion dollars. More than a third of that money has come from Abar, an investment fund based in Abu Dhabi. (This was made available in return for an undertaking by Virgin to build a space tourism base in the Gulf.) By any measure, this accident will have set back the development program by years. Will backers want to pour ever more money into this black hole?
“From the beginning in 2004 there has always been a credibility gap between the fairground hyperbole of Branson’s formidable publicity machine and the scientific reality of the enterprise. Somehow, probably because he is such a consummate showman, Branson has been able, year after year, to override the story of continual delays, flagrant over-promises and a voracious, seemingly open-ended budget. This time it’s different.”
“We’ve always known that commercial space travel is an incredibly hard project,” Branson acknowledges. “We’re going to learn from what went wrong.”