SpaceShipTwo, one crew member lost

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane before Friday's takeoff. Credit: Jason DiVenere / Scaled Composites
Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane is slung beneath the WhiteKnightTwo carrier plane before Friday’s takeoff. Credit: Jason DiVenere / Scaled Composites

This is turning out to be an awful week for space travel. First, was the loss of an unmanned Antares rocket on Tuesday night, and today, the loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and tragically, one of her crew members. NBC News’ Alan Boyle was among the first to report on this. Here’s the key graph:

Photographer Ken Brown, who was covering the test flight, told NBC News that he saw an explosion high in the air and later came upon SpaceShipTwo debris scattered across a small area of the desert. The Mojave airport’s director, Stuart Witt, told NBC News that the craft crashed north of Mojave. He deferred further comment pending a news conference that is scheduled for 2 p.m. PT (5 p.m. ET).

Crap.

It looks like we won’t know more until the news conference, and even then I expect any information will still be very preliminary. Any accident like this needs time to be investigated. But for now, there’s a brave pilot who won’t be coming home and another who will need some critical care.

I’m not going to be able to cover this story nearly as well as the local news and other outlets, so I’ll leave it to the pros. All I can say is that space travel is a very unforgiving business. The physics of it require a tremendous amount of energy to even just get into space, let alone orbit the Earth or to go beyond. Any time you try to harness that much energy there’s a potentially high price to pay when something goes wrong.

Virgin Galactic is meant to be a purely fun recreational business – an opportunity for the public to spend a few minutes in space for the cost of a $250,000 ticket. There’s no science being done, no “exploration” to speak of., and no national interest at stake  And yet, it’s very much pushing humanity into a new frontier. 10 years or so ago, the idea of a private citizen purchasing a ticket for a ride into space would have been considered pure fantasy. But Virgin Galactic has gotten far closer to realizing that dream than anyone else.

They’ll recover from this and keep carrying that dream forward.

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