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After the Virgin Galactic crash, does space tourism still have a future?

Wreckage from last week's SpaceShipTwo crash.
Wreckage from last week's SpaceShipTwo crash.
(Sandy Huffaker/Getty Images)

Last week, Virgin Galactic's sole space vehicle SpaceShipTwo crashed, killing co-pilot Michael Alsbury.

Today, it's being reported that about 3 percent of the 700 or so customers on the company's wait list to go into space have cancelled their tickets.

Company founder Richard Branson has said the company will investigate the cause of the crash and press on, but the accident has raised questions about the future of the company, and perhaps even space tourism as a whole.

Branson has said he sees this as a setback, but a surmountable one — similar to failures that plagued NASA's space program in the 1960s. Some critics, however, say the crash and other problems are a sign that space travel is just too far away from being a safe, routine technology to be feasible for tourists.

The biggest issue at stake is space travel's crash rate. Even the most successful rocket systems still fail more than 5 percent of the time, and Virgin Galactic's vehicle now has a similar failure rate, having crashed after just 23 powered test flights. But some experts think that rate can be brought down, putting space tourism roughly on par with climbing Mount Everest — a risky activity that still attracts nearly a thousand wealthy thrill-seekers annually.

Here's a look at space tourism — and what the crash means for its long-term future.

A brief history of space tourism

space hotel

Space tourism was heavily featured in the 1968 2001: A Space Odyssey.(MGM)

"The idea of space tourism has been bandied about, at least in science fiction, since the 1920s," says Paul Milo, author of Your Flying Car Awaits, a book about 20th century speculation on future technologies. "In the 1960s, there was this perception that by the 21st century, space tourism — whether a stint aboard an orbiting hotel, or a trip to the moon — would be as common as a flight from New York to Tokyo."

The main reason that still isn't the case, he says, is money. After the moon landing and the perception that the US had won the space race, Congress's funding for NASA dried up significantly. For decades, dreams of space tourism went nowhere, as space travel remained far too expensive and risky.

That began to change in the late 1990s, when a pair of entrepreneurs created the X Prize — a standing offer of $10 million to the first private organization that created a reusable spacecraft. The prize was won in 2004 by Burt Rutan, creator of the spaceplane SpaceShipOne, which twice flew to an altitude of more than 100 kilometers, and in doing so, scraped the bottom edge of space.

Soon after, Richard Branson licensed the technology for use in developing a similar craft (SpaceShipTwo) that could carry paying passengers to the same altitude, allowing them to experience zero-gravity and see the curvature of the Earth from space. But though there's been lots of hype — and about 700 people who've signed up for the $250,000 flight — the company has had to repeatedly push back its timetables for commercial flights.

Most recently, plans had called for commercial flights to begin in the spring of 2015, but the crash (which destroyed the only SpaceShipTwo in existence) will certainly mean substantial delays. Both before and after the accident, some critics said the company had rushed the development and testing process for publicity's sake, and hadn't taken proper safety precautions.

Determining the cause of this accident is critical

The investigation into last week's crash is in its early stages, and what it ultimately finds could be pivotal in determining Virgin Galactic's future.

SpaceShipTwo gets carried up to 50,000 feet by a larger mothership (WhiteKnightTwo). Then, after it gets released, its rocket engine engages, allowing it to fly upward to about 330,000 feet, the lower edge of space. As it descends, its wings shift into a configuration that creates more drag, allowing it to slow down before landing.

virgin galactic

(Virgin Galactic)

Last week's crash happened shortly after the plane was released from the mothership. That, combined with the fact that its engine was running on a new type of fuel, led to suspicion that the rocket engine itself was at fault.

A cockpit video, however, has reportedly shown shown that the wings shifted prematurely. Additionally, the plane's rocket motor and fuel tanks have been found largely intact. That suggests that the erroneous wing configuration may have caused the crash — which, says Howard McCurdy, a space expert and professor at American University, might actually be good news for the company, because it might suggest a relatively simple problem with an easier solution.

"If it turns out that that's what the main problem was, that could lead to a relatively easy fix, which might mean that investors are more likely to stay in," says Jonathan McDowell, an astronomer and rocket expert. "If it were the actual rocket engine, on the other hand, that would be much harder to fix and would be more likely to require a major redesign."

Both experts caution that we need to await the results of the full investigation. But if the wing shift is indeed to blame, McDowell says, Virgin could theoretically begin test flights with a second SpaceShipTwo — which it reportedly began building months ago — within a year or two, and could try to begin commercial flights a few years after that.

Just how risky is space travel?

spaceshiptwo

Virgin's SpaceShipTwo, shown during an earlier test flight. (Photo by Mark Greenberg/Virgin Galactic/Getty Images)

On a broader level, there's a bigger question facing space tourism: Just how dangerous is it? Economist Alex Tabarrok points out that after decades of research, rocket science still has a substantial failure rate of around 4 or 5 percent. That's far, far higher than conventional aviation.

Given that Virgin Galactic's potential customers would solely be heading to space for kicks (rather than, say, for conducting research), it's possible that this level of risk could scare off customers and ultimately ruin the business. Though hundreds of people have signed up to pay $250,000 for a short flight aboard SpaceShipTwo, some have already gotten cold feet after learning about last week's crash (people on Virgin's waiting list are entitled to get their deposit back if they choose their mind).

Still, just because space tourism is risky doesn't mean its doomed. After all, many of Virgin Galactic's customers were already well aware that space travel is a risky endeavor. "The kind of people that sign up for this are adventure seekers," says Marco Caceres, a space analyst with Teal Group. "They thrive on risk. Many of them wont be daunted by this."

McCurdy points out that space tourism could thrive if it could lower the accident rate to, say, 1 percent. That's still riskier than conventional aviation, but it's in line with experimental, high-altitude X-planes"Think about it this way: if you leave Mount Everest's base camp on a commercial expedition, your odds of returning are 99 percent," McCurdy says. "As a whole, the extreme adventure market carries substantial risk, but that doesn't keep people off Everest." About 1000 people attempt to climb Everest annually — many of whom are the same wealthy, risk-taking customers that would be interesting in flying aboard SpaceShipTwo.

This data, McCurdy says, suggests that if Virgin Galactic can build another vehicle and get it into space, it won't lack for customers.

Will investors stay committed?

branson

Richard Branson speaks after the crash. (Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images)

The bigger question Branson faces, several experts said, is whether he can retain the confidence of investors in the coming years. Virgin has already gone through several delays, and all the customers in the world can't fund the research and development process, because they won't be paying until the company is actually carrying them into space.

"It's not over for Virgin Galactic, but the next few months are going to be critical," McDowell says, noting that to retain investor confidence, the company will need to appear to especially concerned with safety, especially given the criticism it's faced in the wake of the crash. McCurdy points out that a lack of investors doomed previous efforts, like Lockheed Martin's X-33 spaceplane.

Still, it's worth noting that some of the people who have poured money into Virgin Galactic seem to view it as a vanity or legacy project, rather than a profitable investment. "These are people that have money to burn, in many cases," Caceres says. "Many of them are interested in leaving a legacy, or being able to say they were there at the beginning of something big, rather than getting their money back with interest. I don't they’ll be dissuaded so much."

"If Branson doesn't do it, someone else will"

xcor

A rendering of XCOR Aerospace's Lynx spaceplane, still in development (Gabriel Bouys/AFP/Getty Images)

Regardless of how this accident affects Virgin Galactic, it's important to remember that it is not the only company aiming to carry tourists up to space. Virgin attracts the most attention — partly because its technology has seemed the closest to completion, and partly because Branson courts publicity — but XCOR Aerospace, Blue Origin, and other groups have similar plans.

"I think if Branson doesn't do it, someone else will," McCurdy says. "There's too much demand in the market for this kind of activity to pass it by." And it's possible, Caceres says, that the accident might actually help competitors, both by giving them time to catch up to Virgin and by making them seem more conservative and safety-minded by comparison.

This accident might lead federal regulators to more closely scrutinize these companies' plans before approving commercial flights, but McDowell feels it's unlikely to derail the field as a whole. "It’ll delay things, it’s a setback, but I think that as best we can tell, it won’t shut down the industry," he says.