Soon you may not have to commit to the rigors of astronaut life to get out into space. Today Virgin Galactic is unveiling the second iteration of SpaceShipTwo, its shuttle designed to bring (wealthy) tourists on sub-orbital space flights.
The space tourism project was dealt a major blow after an in-air explosion killed one of the company’s pilots on a test flight in 2014. Virgin’s CEO Richard Branson questioned continuing the project. But today, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in the California desert, the record label-turned-space travel agency is once again throwing its hat in the ring to make commercial civilian spaceflight a reality.
This new version of SpaceShipTwo is structurally almost identical to the shuttle that tragically failed, with a few upgrades. “Most of the changes that we made were planned before the accident,” said Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic. “With regard to the accident specifically, we have made one structural change to the vehicle, which is to add a mechanical inhibit to the featherlock system that would prevent that from ever being inadvertently opened at the wrong time in flight.” Such a safeguard could have protected against pilot error, which was the primary source of failure in the deadly 2014 test flight.
The road to redesign hasn’t been a smooth one for Virgin Galactic. This time around, Virgin cut ties with Scaled Composites, the aerospace company that designed and operated the SpaceShipTwo shuttle that broke apart midflight. According to Pomerantz, that was the plan all along for the second spaceship. But after the accident, Virgin made a point to transition quickly to in-house operations.
In theory, the design strategy implemented by Scaled Composites was a sound one: keep everything as basic as possible. The problem is that the sum total of those basic components was an incredibly complex, interconnected system involving two aircraft, four highly skilled pilots, and a lot of precision timing.
Scaled Composites didn’t factor human fallibility into their models. Pilot Michael Alsbury unlocked a feathering mechanism at the incorrect time, triggering a chain of events that caused SpaceShipTwo to break apart in flight, according to the National Transportation Safety Bureau’s investigation. Alsbury was killed in the crash, and the craft’s other pilot, Peter Siebold, was severely injured. The NTSB’s official report on the accident further suggests that Alsbury’s training simulations had not properly prepared him for the extreme vibrations and g-forces he experienced in flight.
Virgin isn’t the only company investing big in space-travel, and not everyone trying to get to space is on the same mission. Elon Musk’s SpaceX project and Blue Origin, brainchild of Amazon founder and Washington Post owner Jeff Bezos, are aiming to make space flight for humans and cargo affordable with reusable rockets. Other companies, like Sierra Nevada and Orbital ATK, are focusing only on cargo. SpaceX received $1 billion in funding from Google last year and has now successfully landed a rocket after blasting into low Earth orbit. And a Blue Origin rocket successfully launched and landed last month, although it didn’t go as high as the SpaceX launch.
Virgin stands alone in its focus on space tourism for the ultra-wealthy (tickets are now going for $250,000 a pop), which makes their risky choices all the more questionable. Still, keeping in mind NASA spends upwards of $70 million with each astronaut it sends to space, Virgin’s tickets are relatively cheap, if not out of reach for almost everyone on the planet.
In a press release yesterday, Virgin said its attempt to build a commercial-friendly spaceship “isn’t a race” and that it’s “committed to being thorough in our testing”—but it was testing that led to the deadly failure in 2014. And testing is what every space-travel project is doing right now. It sure feels like a race.
“We’re trying to democratize access to space,” says Pomerantz. “The total number of human beings who have ever been to space as of today is 552.” According to Richard Branson, 800 people have already bought tickets to fly with Virgin Galactic. And while it’s not as easy to sign up for Virgin’s space travel as it is to get in line for a rollercoaster, Pomerantz claims that the company is getting close.
Most of the non-astronauts reading this will never have the opportunity to take a vacation beyond Earth’s atmosphere. After all, rocket science is really hard. The question remains as to whether Virgin Galactic will be the first to bring civilians into outer space—and how many more deaths it might take.