The privatization of the space program was only a matter of time. Ever since the end of the moon landings NASA’s budgets have become smaller and smaller. Despite what anyone else says I truly believe this has led the agency to constantly put vehicles into orbit that were way past their prime and unsafe. This indirectly causing the death of those chosen to fly them. Now, because of past administrations short sightedness, we have no manned vehicle capable of getting astronauts into orbit. To do, that we must depend on the Russians at a cost of over $52 million per person per flight.
However, out in the Mojave Desert, amid the carcasses of discarded airliners rusting in the sun, a strange thing is taking place; a 10,000 foot long, 200 foot wide runway has been built. So why build the third largest runway in the world in the middle of nowhere? To land spacecraft of course.
You see we Americans still believe that if you want something done right you got to do it yourself. This runway is just the beginning of the first privately owned and run spaceport in the world. Backed by “Virgin Galactic’s” Sir Richard Branson, “Virgin Galactic” could have intercontinental sub orbital flights in 3 to 5 years and orbital passenger flights a few years after that. Of all the private companies in the space race, only Branson has managed to get one of his manned vehicles even close to sub orbital space. In September 2014 “Virgin Galactic’s” Space Ship 2 made it up to an altitude of 71,000 feet, about 13 miles or about twice as high as most airlines fly.
But this has not come without setbacks and heart wrenching moments. “Virgin Galactic” has had dozens of delays due to equipment malfunctions and engine failures. Then at 10:51 PST on October 31st, 2014 while SS Enterprise was running a rocket powered test flight, the craft broke up in flight killing 39-year-old co-pilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring 43-year-old pilot Peter Siebold.
At a hearing in Washington D.C. on 28 July 2015, the NTSB cited inadequate design safeguards, poor pilot training, lack of rigorous FAA oversight and a potentially anxious co-pilot without recent flight experience as important factors in the 2014 crash. They determined that the co-pilot, who died in the accident, prematurely unlocked a movable tail section some ten seconds after SpaceShip Two fired its rocket engine and was breaking the sound barrier, resulting in the craft breaking apart. But the Board also found the Scaled Composites unit of Northrop Grumman, which designed and flew the prototype space tourism vehicle, didn’t properly prepare for potential human slip-ups by providing a fail-safe system that could have guarded against such premature deployment.
As was the case with NASA in the early days misfires and failures are usually the norm. Then you learn from your mistakes and move on. Such is the case with “Virgin Galactic” whose schedule might be slowed down but not their enthusiasm. On December 3rd 2016 their new spaceship VSS Unity performed its first successful free flight under complete control by the crew. Sometimes progress is measured by the small steps we take and not necessarily the big ones.