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

The spot where SpaceShipTwo's cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)
The spot where SpaceShipTwo’s cockpit crashed. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

The Coming Reckoning for NewSpace

After the Challenger accident in 1986, the nation went through the five stages of grief. First there was denial that such a tragedy could occur. That was followed by depression over the loss of seven brave Americans.

And there was anger. A lot of anger. As reporters and the Rogers Commission began to investigate the accident, it emerged that the astronauts’ deaths could have been prevented. The investigations also exposed serious flaws in the space shuttle and deep dysfunction within NASA, an agency renowned for its technical competence. The picture that emerged was not pretty.

A similar situation is likely evolving with the National Transportation Safety Board’s investigation into the SpaceShipTwo crash in October. Even if NTSB concludes that the accident was caused solely by pilot error, the investigation is likely to expose serious problems at Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic that have plagued the troubled program from the start. It won’t be a very pretty picture.

In NASA’s case, the loss Challenger caused a crisis of confidence that the space agency had to work through in order to return to flight. Officials had to rebuild confidence within the agency and with the public at large.

Whether the NewSpace movement will suffer a similar crisis remains to be seen. But, it is clear that a report that exposes a dysfunctional program has the potential to undermine much of the confident assumptions upon which the movement is based.

The whole idea behind NewSpace is that the private sector can do things cheaper, faster and better than government bureaucracies. There’s a belief that commercial ventures will be safer than government-run enterprises because private companies know if they lose people in flight, they will be out of business. NewSpace also puts faith in competitions such as the Ansari X Prize to advance progress.

What if all this is wrong?

SpaceShipOne proved that a small team with a miniscule budget and better technology could spend eight years replicating what the U.S. government had accomplished 40 years earlier with the X-15. It was a significant achievement, but the flight test program was cut short after the ship reached space only three times. The vehicle was never fully wrung out so engineers could learn all they could before building a bigger ship.

The SpaceShipTwo program subsequently demonstrated that a much larger team can spend a fortune trying to commercialize the technology without flying anywhere near space. Four people have been killed in the program, the prototype was wrecked. The major cause of the delays has been the hybrid propulsion system that came out of the SpaceShipOne program, raising the question of whether the Ansari X Prize’s focus on a race to space was misplaced.

Eighteen years is a lot of time to commercialize suborbital rocket flights, which the government accomplished back in 1962. The multiple delays, massive budget overruns and tragic accidents raise questions about the private sector’s ability to do things faster, cheaper and safer than the government.

“Space is hard” went the refrain after SpaceShipTwo crashed in the desert. It’s also humbling. Or it should be. Hopefully, NewSpace will learn the right lessons from the tragedy and the revelations that lie ahead.