Private citizens hoping to blast into space will likely have to defer their plans for years in the wake of a deadly crash by industry leader Virgin Galactic last week. But while technological and regulatory hurdles could keep commercial spaceships grounded until the end of the decade, analysts say, the tragic mishap over California’s Mojave Desert appears unlikely to deter thrill-seeking millionaires from paying for the privilege of becoming astronauts-for-a-day.
In an interview with Bloomberg Television Monday, Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson said his team “will be working 24 hours a day to get back on track.” But the 64-year-old U.K. billionaire also conceded that the company was “months away” from having another craft ready.
Michael Blades, an aerospace and defense analyst with New York- based market-research firm Frost & Sullivan, said Virgin was unlikely to have passengers in the air until 2020 at the earliest.
Virgin’s plan to take customers on suborbital space flights where they would experience weightlessness and see the Earth’s curvature for $250,000 (U.S.) a person have been put on hold repeatedly. The most recent launch date was set for early 2015. That has now been abandoned.
Blades noted that the next iteration of SpaceShipTwo, Virgin’s flagship rocket, will face heightened government scrutiny to ensure safety. “The FAA’s not just going to let someone fly up to the atmosphere with a new technology before it’s pretty proven,” he said.
The vessel, built by Virgin’s partner Scaled Composites, broke apart during an October 31 test flight when a device to slow its descent deployed prematurely, federal investigators say.
Co-pilot Michael Alsbury, 39, died in the crash. Pilot Peter Siebold, 43, was injured and is set to undergo surgery, but was “alert and talking with his family and doctors,” according to a statement released by Scaled Composites.
Blades said that Alsbury’s death and the loss of the ship were unlikely to derail the space tourism industry, despite likely delays. “Almost every time we’ve had some kind of technological advance, or someone kind of pushing the edge, we’ve had things happen that weren’t expected to happen,” he said. “The people who already pay $250,000 to do this, I think that most of the people that have paid that are well aware of the risks, and are probably happy to delay.
“Those are the types of people who are cavaliers anyway,” he added.
Indeed, most of Virgin Galactic’s 800 customers – including celebrities like Justin Bieber, Angelina Jolie, and Stephen Hawking – have kept their reservations despite the offer of a refund, Branson said. (The tabloid Daily Mail reported that Britain’s Princess Beatrice has given up her seat.)
Though this isn’t the company’s first fatal accident – three people were killed in an explosion during testing on a SpaceShipTwo motor at the Mojave Air and Space Port in 2007 – it is Virgin Galactic’s first in-flight fatality.
And it comes on the heels of another high-profile commercial space travel wreck, in which an unmanned Orbital Sciences rocket blew up just seconds after liftoff on October 28, prompting a 15 per cent drop in the company’s share price the next day.
Marco A. Caceres, director of space studies with the market research firm Teal Group, said Branson is unlikely to flinch at the cost of such spectacular failures – at least not yet. Virgin Galactic is a privately held company, and doesn’t have to appease shareholders, he noted. And with a net worth of $5.6 billion (U.S.), Branson has deep enough pockets to keep suffering losses.
“He’s not in it for the money,” Caceres said. “He’s in it for the challenge, for the discovery, for the legacy that he would leave.”
Branson isn’t the only flamboyant billionaire to have entered the new private space race. He is joined by Tesla CEO Elon Musk, whose SpaceX is developing technology that could put humans on Mars, and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, who hopes to make space exploration cheaper and more accessible through his company Blue Origin.
Bob Weiss, president of the XPrize Foundation – which gave its namesake $10-million award to the developers of SpaceShipOne, a precursor to Virgin Galactic’s doomed vessel – said that advances in commercial space flight are about more than joyrides for the superrich.
“The whole notion is to get the cost down,” he said. “That reduction in cost is critical to ultimately being able to live and work in space.”
The endeavour may seem far-fetched now, he argued, but naysayers criticized airplanes in the same terms before Charles Lindbergh made long-distance flights seem viable. “Air travel was way too dangerous, and was just for daredevils.”
Alsbury’s death last week was tragic, Weiss added, but test pilots “take calculated risks to mitigate the risks for the rest of us.”
“I feel that we have a responsibility to press on.”
- With files from The Toronto Star’s wire services