Show Hide image Space 13 November 2014 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. Sign up for our weekly email * Print HTML 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. › Uncovering remarkable lives through my second-hand Classics books Ian Steadman is a staff science and technology writer at the New Statesman. He is on Twitter as @iansteadman. Subscribe from just £1 per issue This article first appeared in the 06 November 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Running out of Time More Related articles The view from Google Earth is magnificent – but there's a problem How politicians are preparing for life on Mars Is this the most dramatic death of a star ever recorded?