Charles Black in front of a real size model of SpaceShipTwo at Farnborough International Air Show, July 2012. Image credit: Sen

Dec 24, 2014 Reflections on SpaceShipTwo and my dream of spaceflight

Sen—I had just got off a plane from Dubai on 31 October when I switched my phone on. It buzzed incessantly as it synchronized ten hours worth of emails and messages. I quickly scanned through my emails and one immediately caught my attention. It was from Virgin Galactic. SpaceShipTwo had "suffered a serious anomaly resulting in the loss of the vehicle ... Our first concern is the status of the pilots".

It was shocking news, and I immediately checked Twitter to find out more. Over the next few hours I learnt more about the tragedy. Mike Alsbury, one of two test pilots onboard SpaceShipTwo, had been killed. The other pilot, Peter Siebold, had survived. Though he was injured, he had managed to parachute to safety from what must have been 40,000 feet. Sir Richard Branson was flying to Mojave immediately. 

That day I received messages asking if I was going to cancel my ticket, presuming I would have been irrevocably put off by the tragedy. Nothing could be further from the truth of how I felt in those shocking moments. The truth is, my dream to reach space cannot be compromised. Not for one nano-second did this tragic news ever make me think "that's it, dream over".

As the news of the crash sank in I reflected on what it meant. The accident had come at a time when there had been a number of stories about delays to the project which raised doubts as to whether Virgin Galactic would ever reach space. The first commercial flight, with Sir Richard Branson and family members onboard was meant to be just months away. It seemed clear that the accident would put intense pressure on the project and give amunition to the doubters.

I worried that this might force Virgin Galactic into being too defensive, so I hoped they would be totally honest and if there was a fundamental problem they would admit it and go back to the drawing board. But never for one moment did I doubt that we would still get to space, though I knew it would take longer. It was reassuring that Sir Richard seemed to echo my sentiments when he arrived, visibily shocked, at the crash site in the Mojave desert.

He told reporters: “We do understand the risks involved and we’re not going to push on blindly. To do so would be an insult to all those affected by this tragedy. We’re going to learn from what went wrong, discover how we can improve safety and performance and then move forwards together. I truly believe that humanity’s greatest achievements come out of our greatest pain.”

Whilst I reflected on the accident, I was in contact with Sen's news editor, Paul Sutherland and Irene Klotz, one of Sen's spaceflight correspondents. Irene was soon on her way to Mojave to report on the crash. Some reports were speculating that the rocket engine had exploded, but it soon transpired that the cause of the accident was not the engine. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) were on site and one of their first findings of fact was that the rocket engine was intact.

Further initial findings emerged from the NTSB which found that the deceased pilot, Mike Alsbury, had unlocked the feather tail system too early. It is not yet known why, it may never be known why. The surviving pilot, Peter Siebold, told the NTSB he did not recall his co-pilot unlocking the feather system. We must now wait to learn what happended on that tragic day—the final NTSB report will take months of detailed examination into the evidence before it can make conclusions. 

Whilst we await the NTSB's findings, Virgin Galactic are busy building the next SpaceShipTwo. Whether this build will need modifications is yet to be discovered, but over the next few months The Spaceship Company, a Virgin Galactic subsidiary, will produce a second spacecraft, and testing will then resume.

Looking at SpaceShipTwo as a vehicle to successfully deliver sub-orbital spaceflight, it is worth remembering that a smaller version of the technology—SpaceShipOne—won the Ansari XPrize by reaching space twice within two weeks back in 2004. This represented a major breakthrough for private space, albeit using technology on a smaller scale than for SpaceShipTwo. This was a point I made when interviewed for Wired in the days that followed the accident.

Challenges have clearly been faced as the technology has been scaled up, but that is expected, especially as SpaceShipTwo is being developed with a greater focus on making the trip sustainable for fee-paying passengers. But progress has been made and the accident has served to reinforce determination to overcome the challenges and one day to reach space. 

I signed up with Virgin Galactic back in 2009 because I have always wanted to go into space. Its part of my wider all consuming passion for space exploration which is why I created Sen which will in the future send video cameras into space to further our knowledge and education. Whilst Sen is my lifelong vision of creating a space content network, I want to fly in space myself, to travel where my mind is, and see Earth from space. One day I would like an orbital space trip and I am sure that Virgin Galactic and other companies such as Boeing will one day offer such flights. 

I believe SpaceShipTwo will make it into space. There might, as a result of the crash investigation, be modifications required to the spaceship. Hardware components and flight software may need to change. An extensive test program is necessary to build a new type of spacecraft, and the determination on the part of Virgin Galactic is as strong as ever, as is the solidarity of the community of 'future astronauts' who have signed up—a solidarity which helps underpin the company's determination to achieve its objectives. Dreams and determination are ingredients that can make anything happen.

Why do I want to go into space and why does it matter? Some say its just an ego trip, a joy ride. It may well deliver on both of those points, but those are not the important effects. What is important is the effort of humans trying to reach space, an effort which has led to tragic loss of life in the past and will in the future. But the human race needs to think beyond one planet, and every effort to reach space is therefore an important step in the right direction.

In my view—and there are great examples already—the more people who see Earth from space, the more they do back on Earth to change the way we think about ourselves and how we look after the planet. This perception change is an indirect benefit of exploring space and one of the reasons that justifies the existence and efforts of spacelines like Virgin Galactic.

Its deeply sad to think of the loss Mike Alsbury's family, friends and colleagues must be feeling. The astronaut community has shown its sympathy and support in many ways, including supporting a memorial fund set up in his honour. He died testing a vehicle designed to take people into space, a pursuit that must continue as we strive to look after our planet and its people in a better way, and ultimately become a multi-planetary species. His bravery will not be forgotten.