During a test flight today, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo — a spaceplane the company was hoping will take tourists up into space next year — exploded and crashed. One of the pilots has died, and the other is seriously injured.
As part of tests carried out by Scaled Composites, a partner company of Virgin, SpaceShipTwo was carried up to 50,000 feet by WhiteKnightTwo (the larger-multi engined plane in the photo above), then released for a powered test flight. Two minutes after it was released and its rocket motor ignited, the plane exploded and broke apart.
Virgin and the FAA both say they are investigating the incident. Fragments of the plane have been found along a two-mile stretch of ground north of the company's Mojave, California spaceport.
What is Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo?
This spaceplane is one of several companies' attempts to pioneer the field of space tourism — the business of taking paying customers into space.
Virgin Galactic's eventual plans call for SpaceShipTwo to fly just up to the lower edge of space (an altitude of about 100 kilometers), which would allow five passengers inside (in addition to the pilot) to experience weightlessness.
The plane would be carried up to 50,000 feet by WhiteKnightTwo, which is essentially a standard jet, then released, allowing the rocket to fire and push the craft upward at a speed of nearly 2500 miles per hour. Virgin Galactic — owned by businessman Richard Branson — has been in the process of developing the technology that might make this possible for several years.
Currently, there's a waiting list of more than 700 people who have paid $250,000 each for a flight on SpaceShipTwo, and the company's latest plans had called for commercial flights to begin as soon as February or March 2015.
What went wrong with this test flight?
The cause of this explosion is unclear. But observers have noted that the plane was using a new type of engine and a new form of fuel that hadn't been previously tested — it had been using a rubber-based compound, and switched to a plastic-based one in hopes of improving the engine's performance.
This flight was also the first powered flight for SpaceShipTwo in more than nine months, though the plane had been put through an unpowered "glide" drop earlier this month.
Is anyone criticizing Virgin Galactic?
Yes, a number of experts have previously criticized Virgin Galactic for prematurely rushing its relatively unproven technologies into use for publicity's sake. In 2007, an explosion at the company's Mojave space port killed three workers.
In February, journalist and Branson biographer Tom Bower told the Guardian that Virgin's planned timeline was overly ambitious. "The rocket still hasn't flown at the required speed and to the required height," he said. "The point about his rocket is it's very primitive."
Today, in a scathing interview with CNN, former Washington Post reporter Joel Glenn Brenner — who's writing a book about SpaceShipOne — said there's a huge gap between the company's public statements about its progress and its actual technologies.
Finally, in a 2013 interview, astronaut Chris Hadfield was even blunter: "Eventually they'll crash one. Because it's hard. They're discovering how hard."
What is space tourism?
Space tourism, in essence, is putting paying customers into space.
At this point, only seven people have actually gone into space as tourists. Between 2001 and 2009, the Space Adventures company brokered deals between seven multi-millionaires and the Russian space agency, sending them to the International Space Station on Russian Soyuz rockets for a week or two, at a cost of $20 to $40 million each. These flights have temporarily been put on hold, partly because the retirement of the Space Shuttle means NASA will pay to reserve those spots for American astronauts.
The first space tourism to be carried out by a private company — rather than Russia— will likely be suborbital flights, like Virgin Galactic had planned.
A craft called SpaceShipOne first made this type of flight in 2004, though not with paying guests on board. Since then, Virgin Galactic bought the company that made it, developed the successor SpaceShipTwo, and made numerous test flights. Its planned start date for commercial flights has been pushed back several times, with the latest timetables including a start in the spring of 2015.
A few other companies, including XCOR Aerospace, have similar plans for suborbital space tourism, but they're not quite as far along.
Some companies, like SpaceX and Boeing, hope to take tourists higher: the full 160 kilometers needed to enter low Earth orbit. Both have mentioned plans to use the same vehicles they're developing to take NASA astronauts to the space station for tourists, though it's a long-term and uncertain idea. Eventually, they could potentially bring tourists to a private space hotel, perhaps built by Bigelow Aerospace, a company that has already launched two experimental inflatable stations into orbit.
What does this accident mean for private spaceflight?
It's hard to say the exact consequences of this accident, but the death of a pilot almost certainly means that Virgin's plans to begin taking tourists up to space by the spring will be delayed. In the CNN interview, Brenner was especially pessimistic. "They do not have any vehicle anywhere near completion," she said. "This really marks the end for what they can do."
On a broader level, this type of event — along with the explosion of Orbital Science's rocket on Monday — is an important reminder. Private spaceflight may be a quickly emerging field, but launching any sort of object from Earth's surface into space is an inherently difficult endeavor.
Lots of people have previously lost their lives as part of the space exploration effort, and despite recent successes, space flight is still not a routine, completely safe technology.
Update: This story has been edited to reflect ongoing developments.