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

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The one where she turns into a USB stick: the worst uses of tech in films

The new film Worst Tinder Date Ever will join a long tradition of poorly-thought-through tech storylines.

News just in from Hollywood: someone is making a film about Tinder. What will they call it? Swipe Right, perhaps? I Super Like You? Some subtle allusion to the app’s small role in the plotline? Nope – according to Hollywood Reporterthe film has been christened Worst Tinder Date Ever.

With the exception of its heavily branded title (You’ve Got Gmail, anyone?), Worst Tinder Date Ever follows neatly in the tradition of writers manhandling tech into storylines. Because really, why does it matter if it was a Tinder date? This “rom com with action elements” reportedly focuses on the couple’s exploits after they meet on the app, so the dogged focus on it is presumably just a ploy to get millennial bums on cinema seats.  

Like the films on this list, it sounds like the tech in Worst Tinder Date Ever is just a byword for “modern and cool” – even as it demonstrates that the script is anything but.

Warning: spoilers ahead.

Lucy (2014)

Scarlett Johansson plays Lucy, a young woman who accidentally ingests large quantities of a new drug which promises to evolve your brain beyond normal human limits.

She evolves and evolves, gaining superhuman powers, until she hits peak human, and turns into first a supercomputer, and then a very long USB stick. USB-Lucy then texts Morgan Freeman's character on his fliphone to prove that: “I am everywhere.”

Beyond the obvious holes in this plotline (this wouldn’t happen if someone’s brain evolved; texting a phone is not a sign of omnipotence), USB sticks aren’t even that good – as Business Insider points out: “Flash drives are losing relevance because they can’t compete in speed and flexibility with cloud computing services . . . Flashdrives also can’t carry that much information.”

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

If you stare at it hard enough, the plotline in the latest Star Wars film boils down to the following: a gaggle of people travels across space in order to find a map showing Luke Skywalker’s location, held on a memory stick in a drawer in a spherical robot. Yep, those pesky flash drives again.

It later turns out that the map is incomplete, and the rest of it is in the hands of another robot, R2-D2, who won’t wake up for most of the film in order to spit out the missing fragment. Between them, creator George Lucas and writer and director JJ Abrams have dreamed up a dark vision of the future in which robots can talk and make decisions, but can’t email you a map.

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)

In which a scientist uses a computer to find the “precise location of the three remaining golden tickets sent out into the world by Willy Wonka. When he asks it to spill the beans, it announces: “I won’t tell, that would be cheating.


Image: Paramount Pictures. 

The film inhabits a world where artificial intelligence has been achieved, but no one has thought to pull Charlie's poor grandparents out of extreme poverty, or design a computer with more than three buttons.

Independence Day (1996)

When an alien invasion threatens Earth, David Levinson (Jeff Goldblum) manages to stop it by hacking the alien spaceship and installing a virus. Using his Mac. Amazing, really, that aliens from across the universe would somehow use computing systems so similar to our own. 

Skyfall (2012)

In the Daniel Craig reboot of the series, MI6’s “Q” character (played by Ben Whishaw) becomes a computer expert, rather than just a gadget wizard. Unfortunately, this heralded some truly cringeworthy moments of “hacking” and “coding” in both Skyfall and Spectre (2014).

In the former, Bond and Q puzzle over a screen filled with a large, complex, web shape. They eventually realise it’s a map of subterranean London, but then the words security breach flash up, along with a skull. File under “films which make up their own operating systems because a command prompt box on a Windows desktop looks too boring”.

An honourable mention: Nelly and Kelly Rowland’s “Dilemma” (2009)

Not a movie, but how could we leave out a music video in which Kelly Rowland texts Nelly on a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet on a weird Nokia palm pilot?


Image: Vevo.

You’ll be waiting a long time for that response, Kelly. Try Tinder instead.

Barbara Speed is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman and a staff writer at CityMetric.