Despite tragedy, Virgin Galactic presses on: Bob McDonald

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic unveils its new space plane this week, a successor to one destroyed in a tragic accident in 2014. The company is forging ahead, despite serious setbacks, confident it can make space travel safe for citizens.

SpaceShipTwo designed to take 6 tourists, 2 pilots above atmosphere for 5-minute sub-orbital trip

Richard Branson, shown at the Virgin Galactic hangar at Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, Calif., will be a passenger on one of the first commercial flights of the new SpaceShipTwo. (Reed Saxon/Associated Press)

Space tourism company Virgin Galactic unveils its new space plane this week, a successor to one destroyed in a tragic accident in 2014. The company is forging ahead, despite serious setbacks, confident it can make space travel safe for citizens.

The new SpaceShipTwo looks exactly like its predecessor — a rocket-powered space plane that is launched at 15,000 metres from the belly of a carrier aircraft.

It's designed to take six tourists and two pilots above the atmosphere for a five-minute sub-orbital visit to space. Hundreds of people have signed up for the $200,000 experience, but before anyone flies, the company has to be sure the vehicle is safe.

SpaceShipTwo's innovative design is the brainchild of Burt Rutan, famous for building unusual-looking aircraft, including Voyager, which made the first non-stop round-the-world flight in 1986; Global Flyer, which made the first solo non-stop circumnavigation in 2005; and SpaceShipOne, which won the $10-million X-Prize in 2004 for being the first private rocket to reach space, twice within two weeks.

Rutan believes that getting to space does not have to involve military rocket boosters and capsules like those that kicked off the space race or ultra-expensive space shuttles.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo, VSS Enterprise, glides toward the earth on its first test flight after release from the mothership, WhiteKnight2, over the Mojave, Calif., area on Oct. 10, 2010. (Clay Observatory for Virgina Galactic/Associated Press)

Instead, lightweight, carbon-composite, winged vehicles with hybrid rocket engines should be able to fly to space routinely and cheaply. It's interesting to note that a similar promise was made in the 1970s, when the space shuttles were being designed to replace the giant Apollo moon rockets.

As history has shown, the shuttles were neither cheap nor completely safe, with two out of five destroyed during flight — killing 14 crew members.

Sadly, fatal accidents are part of the process any time humans have tried to leave the ground, and unfortunately, Virgin Galactic is no exception.

On two occasions, disaster struck, and each time, the company pressed on, wiser for the experience.

During a test firing in 2007, a rocket engine exploded, killing three people and injuring others. The program was put on hold while questions were raised about the safety of the engine on a vehicle designed to carry people. The cause of the accident was investigated and improvements to the engine were made.

Then, during a test flight in 2014, co-pilot Michael Alsbury prematurely deployed a feathering system designed to slow the vehicle on the way down by tilting the tail up at a sharp angle.

But the rocket was still under power at supersonic speed on the way up. The stresses on the airframe caused the spacecraft to break apart, killing Alsbury and injuring pilot Peter Siebold.

Again, the accident raised serious concerns about the safety of the entire space tourism industry.

But rather than give up in the face of tragedy or scrap the design and start over with a new type of spaceship, the operators felt that the design was sound and they continued to build a replacement equipped with safeguards so that type of accident cannot happen again.

A piece of debris is seen near the scene of the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo near Cantil, Calif. , on Oct. 31, 2014. (Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

They will now proceed with a step-by-step test program and will not be ready to take on passengers until they are confident the vehicle is reliable and safe. That is why they are, wisely, not announcing a date for the first commercial flights.

Accidents are a hard reality for the space and aviation industries. While no one wants them to happen, and the loss to family members is unfathomable, accidents point out flaws that were either overlooked or only show up after long-term use.

The only consolation is that out of tragedy come aircraft that are safer for future fliers. But they are also a grim reminder of how dangerous space travel is, especially in newly designed vehicles.

During the race to the moon in the 1960s, a fire broke out in the Apollo 1 capsule that killed three astronauts — and that spacecraft had not even left the ground.

The moon program was put on hold while the problem was identified. Faulty wiring, flammable materials and a pure oxygen environment were to blame for the blaze, along with a hatch that could not be opened from the inside. The problems were fixed, then NASA continued on to successfully land on the moon.

Virgin Galactic is doing it right by taking their time to follow a step-by-step test program, where no new step is taken until the previous one is totally successful.

In the end, they hope to prove the vehicle is safe for public transit to space. To demonstrate his confidence in the engineers, billionaire Richard Branson, who owns Virgin Galactic, will put his own life on the line when he becomes a passenger on one of the first commercial flights.

It's a bold move that everyone will be watching.


Bob McDonald is the host of CBC Radio's award-winning weekly science program, Quirks & Quarks. He is also a science commentator for CBC News Network and CBC-TV's The National. He has received 12 honorary degrees and is an Officer of the Order of Canada.