2014: The Year We Discovered Space is Hard (Part II)

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

Second in a Series

Three Deaths in the Desert

Within the space of a week in October, there were two fatal crashes in the Mojave Desert that claimed the lives of three pilots. One accident attracted intense international media coverage; the other received little notice outside the area. The crashes and the reactions to them tell us a lot about the current states of aviation and space travel.

The accident that got all the attention was the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo on Halloween. Scaled Composites test pilots Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury were conducting a powered flight test when the suborbital space plane broke up about 13 seconds after being dropped by its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Alsbury died; a battered and bruised Siebold was able to parachute to safety.

A week earlier, flight instructor Michael Hill and student pilot Ilam Zigrante took off in a small plane from the Mojave Air and Space Port for a routine flight. Something went wrong, and they went down in the mountains northeast of where SpaceShipTwo would crash a week later. Both pilots were killed.

Hill, who served as director of business operations at the National Test Pilot School, was well known and liked in Mojave. His death was a deep blow to the small community. Zigrante was a student pilot from Germany, one of many foreigners training at the school. Neither was well known to the general public.

Alsbury was also not a name most people would have recognized, either. However, he was testing a space plane for Virgin Galactic, a company founded by Richard Branson. The famous British billionaire has relentlessly promoted SpaceShipTwo as a centerpiece of his Virgin Group empire. So, when the ship fell out of the sky, it became world news instantly.

The minimal coverage given to the other accident also reflected just how routine air travel is in our lives 111 years after the Wright Brothers flew at Kitty Hawk. Commercial and general aviation are commonplace, and both are quite safe. Accidents are tragic, but relatively rare. More people die on the roads each year than in plane crashes.

In short, aviation is everything that space travel is not. Getting to space remains a dangerous, rare and costly proposition, one that involves the controlled combustion of volatile fuels in vehicles moving at extremely high speeds. Under those conditions, death can come in seconds.

Given the dangers, the public places test pilots and astronauts on pedestals high above flight test instructors, airline pilots and almost everyone else. In “The Right Stuff,” Tom Wolfe helped popularized the image of the brave aviator pushing the outside of the envelope and pulling it back at the last second. Some, like Chuck Yeager, lived to fly another day. Others were not so lucky.

“Space is hard,” Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said after SpaceShipTwo crashed. Indeed it is.

Virgin Galactic’s entire goal is to make getting to space safe, routine and (eventually) affordable. The company envisions making thousands of people astronauts. Flights to space would occur on a daily basis from Spaceport American in New Mexico and other locations around the world.

Maybe some day the company will reach that goal. If it does, then the occasional crash of a space plane will be seen as tragic but not particularly newsworthy, providing it doesn’t involve anyone rich or famous. But, we are probably still quite a long way from that future.