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Space Tourism Rocket Crash Stirs Mixed Emotions

The Seattle Times | 3 November 2014

Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo coming to pieces mid-air
Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo coming to pieces mid-air

The explosion of Virgin Galactic's passenger rocket ship is stirring up mixed emotions as scientists and others involved in the space industry wait for more details on what happened over the Mojave Desert.

By Seth Borenstein and Susan Montoya Bryan

The explosion of Virgin Galactic’s passenger rocket ship is stirring up mixed emotions as scientists and others involved in the space industry wait for more details on what happened over the Mojave Desert.

While several people expressed sadness that one pilot was killed and another was seriously injured Friday, many also said they understand the risks that come with pushing the boundaries that have hampered the burgeoning commercial space travel industry.

The reaction to the crash includes:

— Former NASA top space scientist Alan Stern has seats to fly on Virgin Galactic — and its competitor XCOR aerospace. He isn’t rethinking plans to fly in space at all.

“Let’s not be Chicken Littles here,” said Stern, now a vice president at Southwest Research Institute. “The birth of aviation was also a very dangerous time period.”

“All forms of transportation carry risk,” he said. “To expect spaceflight could somehow be different is unrealistic on the part of the public or anyone. Secondly to do something very hard, to do something on the frontier, comes with risk.”

— Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, offered his sympathies to the families affected by the explosion.

“Today, we are tragically reminded of the tremendous challenges that we face every day in our efforts to push the envelope of human experience and capability in space enterprise and exploration,” he said.

Stallmer and Bill Nye, chief executive of the Planetary Society, said the courage of both pilots and the commitment Virgin Galactic has made to space tourism will serve as inspiration as the industry continues to make space travel as safe and reliable as possible.

— Former NASA astronaut Jerry Linenger, who nearly died in a 1997 fire aboard the Russian space station Mir, said that when he first met British billionaire Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, he told him the first thing he’d have to worry about is liability insurance.

“You will have setbacks,” Linenger said he told Branson. “That is a reality.”

— In New Mexico, from where Virgin Galactic planned to launch its flights within the next year, hearts were sinking. The New Mexico Spaceport Authority issued a statement saying its thoughts and prayers were with the crew’s family members and the team that has been working for years to develop the rocket.

“We will continue to work with and lend our support to Virgin Galactic through this tragedy and in the coming months as we move forward,” the authority said.

–The National Space Society said it stands by Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides and encouraged the company to press on.

“We expect that the cause of the accident will be found and fixed so that the Virgin Galactic dream of ‘opening space to tens of thousands of people’ can become a reality,” said Mark Hopkins, chairman of the NSS Executive Committee.

–NASA Administrator Charles Bolden also shared his condolences.

“While not a NASA mission, the pain of this tragedy will be felt by all the men and women who have devoted their lives to exploration,” he said. “Space flight is incredibly difficult, and we commend the passion of all in the space community who take on risk to push the boundaries of human achievement.”

–Wilson da Silva, a journalist, is among the first 100 people to fly once Virgin Galactic begins its commercial flights. While devastated for the pilots and their families, da Silva is still excited about the prospect of going into space.

“While some have in the past grumbled good-naturedly about the years of waiting, we all know Virgin Galactic is doing something new and very difficult, and any delays have been for sound technical and safety reasons,” da Silva said. “This is a reminder that what’s being attempted here is pioneering and risky.”

–Ken Baxter, 65, of Las Vegas, said he was one of those who signed up to make the first flight early next year. He’s confident the flight will happen at some point.

“No question about it,” he said. “Richard’s not a giver-upper and neither am I.”


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