November 3, 2014

Virgin Galaxy program to continue despite tragic end to test flight

Scaled Composites, the company that designed and built Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two, has seen its second fatal accident in this project, this time claiming the life of a 39-year-old co-pilot. Previously, three other employees died in a ground test during development of the ship’s propulsion system in 2007. Despite the myriad advancements made in modern technology in general, and space flight in particular, it seems the risks surrounding a new space venture are just as great as at the beginning of the other ‘space race’ when three American Pilots died aboard Apollo 1 and one Russian cosmonaut died aboard Soyuz 1, both in 1967. Virgin has made it clear that they will continue with the program and as George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, put it: “We believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who have been working so hard on them, to understand this and to move forward, which is what we’ll do.”
This was the first test flight since January and also the first since a new propellant was being used, a solid plastic propellant as opposed to the previous rubber-based one. There is heavy speculation that this new fuel could well have been the cause of the accident, but that is all it is, speculation. The National Transportation Safety Board will draw their own conclusions from an abundance of data which will be made available to them. An aircraft flying behind SpaceShipTwo was collecting video images and radar data, while a range camera at Edwards Air Force Base was also recording the failed test flight. The spaceship additionally had video cameras and data storage cards on board. However it is anticipated this investigation will last up to a year, which has put the brakes on Branson’s intentions to have the service ‘operational’ by March 2015.
While competition on the commercial space race front also comes from XCOR Aerospace, which is building a two-person space plane they intend to call Lynx, and Blue Origin, a start-up space company owned by Amazon’s Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic should still be able to keep its nose in front as Virgin Galactica had already announced in October that a second aircraft was almost 60% complete.



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