Collateral damage? Debris from Virgin Galactic's crashed SpaceShipTwo
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Space incorporated: lessons from the deadly Virgin Galactic crash

Governments are setting their sights on missions to Mars and the moon but private companies are focused on shorter excursions into space. Their motivation is simple: there’s money in it.

This is an awful time for the private space industry. On 28 October, an unmanned Antares rocket, produced by Orbital Sciences Corporation, exploded almost immediately after take-off on Wallops Island, Virginia, destroying its cargo of supplies for the International Space Station (ISS). Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s experimental spacecraft for tourists, SpaceShipTwo, broke up during a test flight over California, killing the co-pilot, Michael Alsbury, and severely injuring the pilot, Peter Siebold.

While the cause of the Virgin Galactic crash is as yet unknown, it demonstrates that space travel is still dangerous and difficult, regardless of whether the people in charge report to shareholders or elected officials.

Governments are setting their sights on missions to Mars and the moon but private companies are focused on shorter excursions into space. Their motivation is simple: there’s money in it.

Orbital Sciences competed for and won a contract from Nasa worth $1.9bn for running eight resupply missions to the ISS over the next two years (another company, SpaceX, won an identical contract); it makes money winning tenders to develop space tech for a range of military and civilian organisations. Its Antares rocket – the company’s biggest so far – was built specifically to meet Nasa’s ISS mission needs.

Virgin Galactic, by comparison, is as much a hype machine for the Virgin founder, Richard Branson, as a commercial venture. While Orbital deals with “real” space (including working with Nasa on missions such as Dawn, which sent a probe to visit the asteroid belt), Virgin Galactic is concentrating on tourism. A plane called WhiteKnightTwo has been designed to carry SpaceShipTwo to a height of nearly 16km, where it will fire a rocket to an altitude of more than 100km – the point at which space is generally agreed to begin. Passengers should experience approximately six minutes of weightlessness. Several hundred of the world’s super-rich have pre-bought tickets worth $250,000.

Branson has been saying that the first scheduled flights are “imminent” for at least seven years and there is speculation that the project exists more to deflect attention away from image problems elsewhere in the Virgin company than to deliver on its PR pledges.

Regardless, both companies are well aware of the risks. Orbital, in developing its own medium-sized rocket, purchased and repurposed Soviet N1 rocket engines from the 1960s – a decision that was, no doubt, cost-effective but that illustrates how even sticking with tried-and-tested technology does not eliminate all dangers.

The recent crises are unlikely to discourage private space exploration – there’s too much money involved. As in the aerospace and arms industries, governments are increasingly happy to award multibillion-dollar contracts to the private sector. The rewards are potentially vast: the first firm to develop the technology to lasso an asteroid, bring it into the orbit of either the earth or moon and mine it for minerals may have access to almost endless wealth. Or perhaps the goal is the creation of a craft that can transport humans from the Americas to Asia in a fraction of the time that conventional planes currently take.

The more important question, however, remains: is the search for profitability the right guiding principle for space exploration? There might not be much profit in sending probes to far-flung planets, for instance, but it could be scientifically valuable. It is a debate that we are used to on earth – maybe we should start wondering about its relevance to the stars. 

Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman.

This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time

Flickr: M.o.B 68 / New Statesman
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“I begged him to come home”: Breaking the taboo around texting the dead

Many people text dead loved ones to cope with their grief – but trouble arises when they get an unexpected reply. 

A month after Haley Silvestri’s dad died from a heart attack, she texted him begging him to come home. In the middle of the night Silvestri’s 14-year-old sister had found their father, with his lips and mouth blue, lying on the kitchen floor. “There was nothing there anymore, just a dead body,” Silvestri says. “My father had his first heart attack months before and seemed to be doing OK. Then, this happened.”

In the very first episode of CSI Miami’s seventh season, the protagonist – Horatio Caine – fakes his death. For the first 15 minutes of the episode, the viewer believes the character is truly dead, as the camera lingers on Horatio’s body face down on the tarmac.

Silvestri and her father used to enjoy watching the show together. After he had passed and she realised she would never see her “best friend” again, she picked up her phone. “I texted my dad begging him to come home,” she says. “I begged my dad to please be ‘pulling a Horatio’.”

"My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over" 

In texting her father after he had died, Silvestri is by no means unusual. No official figures exist for the number of people who use technology to message their deceased loved ones, but Sara Lindsay, a professional counsellor, clinical supervisor, and trainer, says it is “more common than we think”.

“I see it as a modern and contemporary part of the grieving process,” she says. “I think in a way it's very similar to visiting a graveside, in that the bereaved are reaching out, particularly in the early days, because it takes a long time for people to process the reality that this person has now gone.”

Karlie Jensen, 18, texted her friend immediately after she found out she had died in a car accident. “I texted her as soon as I woke up to the news from my mom that she had passed. My heart was broken and I was bawling as I texted her over and over waiting for a text saying it wasn't her, that my mom didn't know all the facts, and maybe she was just hurt.” Jensen also called her friend and begged her to respond. “I did it because I couldn't let go and couldn't accept she was gone from my life forever,” she says. Karlie continued to text her friend while also calling her voicemail in order to hear the sound of her speaking again. 

Karlie (right) and her friend

After her first text to her deceased father, Silversti also began texting him once a week. She fell into depression, and on her worst days messaged the number. “I think it helped initially because it felt like I was personally writing a note to him, that I knew he only was gonna see,” she says. “I did it because it was my attempt at pretending he was still here and could text me back.”

Lindsay, who has over a decade’s experience of bereavement counselling, emphasises that this behaviour is in no way unhealthy. “I think on the whole it's a very healthy part of grieving, particularly in the first year where the bereaved faces agonising days without their loved ones,” she says. “There is just so much loss and change in their life that’s out of their control, I see this aspect of texting as a small way of being able to reach out and alleviate that pain. That person is suddenly now not there but how they feel about that person hasn't changed.”

"I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text"

Despite being normal, however, using technology to talk to the dead is a behaviour we rarely – if ever – hear anything about. If the words “texting the dead” make it into the media, they are usually followed by a far more sensationalist “and then they text back!!!!”. Yet although messaging the deceased is popularly seen as the stuff of horror movies and trashy headlines, in reality it is simply a new, modern way to grieve.

Via Mirror.co.uk

“The first time I texted him I was on my bus on the way to school,” says now-20-year-old Dylan Campbell about his cousin Josh, who passed away from leukaemia. “I didn't have many friends so I had no one to talk to. I was going through my phone and I saw his number – I wanted to delete it, but I hesitated I thought maybe I could send a text and someone would reply or I would get something out of it.”

Campbell continued to send his cousin texts for a few weeks, “kind of like a diary”. He says he did so because he regretted not seeing Josh more up until his death, and “had a lot of things to say” that he’d never had the chance to. Linsday says texting in this way is a very healthy way of completing unfinished business. “There might have been something they've never said to their loved one that they want to be able to say and texting is a very normal place to do that.”

"Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return"

Nonetheless, Lindsay notes that texting the dead can become unhealthy if grief becomes “stuck”, and the texting replaces normal communication or becomes a long term compulsion. Unlike Silvestri and Campbell, Jensen continued to text her friend in the hopes she would text back. She admits now that she was in denial about her death. “Begging for a dead person to reply to you hurts since you won't ever get what you want in return” she says. “I don't know if it helped trying to contact her or hurt worse because I knew I'd never get a reply. I wanted a reply.”

Quite frequently, however, this reply does come. After a few months – but sometimes in as little as 30 days – phone companies will reallocate a deceased person’s phone number. If someone is texting this number to “talk” to their dead loved one, this can be difficult for everyone involved.

“This story doesn't have a happy ending,” says Campbell. “After a few months someone from that number called me and yelled at me to stop bothering them – it was really heart breaking.” When Silvestri texted her father to wish him a happy birthday (“Saying I hoped he was having a great party up in heaven”) someone replied telling her to never text the number again. “I was pissed off,” she says. “Just block my number if it was that serious. This was a form of therapy I needed and it got taken away because someone couldn’t understand my hurt.”

Indeed, behind the sensationalist tabloid headlines of "texting back" is a more mundane - and cruel - reality of pranksters pretending to be the dead relatives come back to life.

"Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality"

Silvestri, Jensen, and Campbell have never spoken to anyone else about the fact they texted their dead loved ones. Lindsay says that a fear of seeming “mad” combined with cultural phenomena – like the British stiff upper lip – might make people reluctant to speak about it. There is also a stigma around the way much of our modern technology is used in daily life, let alone in death.

This stigma often arises because of the newness of technology, but Christopher Moreman, a philosophy professor and expert on death and dying, emphasises that texting the dead is simply a modern iteration of many historical grieving practices – such as writing letters to the dead or talking to them at their graves. “I don't think the process of grieving is much changed, even if new modes of grieving come about due to new technologies,” he says. In fact, if anything, the differences between old and new ways of grieving can be positive.

“One important difference is in the sense of proximity,” explains Moreman. “I can text a loved one from anywhere in the world, but I can only visit their grave in one specific location. In another way, texting has the same structure whether I am texting someone who is alive or dead, so a sense of proximity also exists in the experience itself.

“Visiting a grave is a clear recognition that the person visited does not exist in the normal day-to-day state of life, whereas texting allows for a suspension of that reality. Some people may complain that new technologies allow us to ignore the reality of death, but there isn't any evidence that one way of grieving is more or less healthy than another.”

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

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