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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Why have men become so lonely – and how does it affect their health?

New findings show the consequences of having a lonely heart.

Go out and get some friends. No, seriously. Hop on the Tube and act faux-interested in the crap-looking book your fellow commuter is reading, even if it's on their Kindle. Chances are it's better than the one in your bag, and they're probably a decent human being and just as lonely, like you and me.

A new slate of facts and figures are showing just how widespread loneliness, is while simultaneously being amazingly terrible for your health.

Research led by Steven Cole from the medicine department at University of California, Los Angeles is showing the cellular mechanisms behind the long known pitfalls of loneliness. Perceived social isolation (PSI) – the scientific term for loneliness –increases the exposure to chronic diseases and even mortality for individuals across the world.

The authors examined the effects of loneliness on leukocytes, also known as white blood cells, which are produced from stem cells in the bone marrow and are critical to the immune system and defending the body against bacteria and viruses. The results showed loneliness increases signalling in the sympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for controlling our fight-or-flight responses, and also affects the production of white blood cells.

Recently, the Movember Foundation, which focuses on men's health and wellbeing, carried out a survey with the help of YouGov investigating friendship and loneliness amongst men. The results are alarming, with only 11 per cent of single men across the spectrum in their early 20s to late-middle age saying they had a friend to turn to in a time of crisis, the number rising to 15 per cent for married men.

Friendship has shown not only to be important to a person's overall wellbeing, but can even add to a person's earnings. A previous study involving 10,000 US citizens over 35 years showed people earned 2 per cent more for each friend they had.

The Movember Foundation survey comes soon after the Office for National Statistics (ONS) showed that men in Britain make up 58 per cent of the 2.47m people living alone between the ages of 45 and 64. The reasons behind this figure include marrying later in life and failed marriages, which usually result in children living with the mother. Women still make up the majority of the 7.7m single-occupant households across all ages in the country, at approximately 54 per cent.

Chronic loneliness seems to have slowly become a persistent problem for the country despite our hyper-connected world. It's an issue that has made even Jeremy Hunt say sensible things, such as "the busy, atomised lives we increasingly lead mean that too often we have become so distant from blood relatives" about this hidden crisis. He's previously called for British families to adopt the approach of many Asian families of having grandparents live under the same roof as children and grandchildren, and view care homes as a last, not first, option.

The number of single-person households has continued to increase over the years. While studies such as this add to the list of reasons why being alone is terrible for you, researchers are stumped as to how we can tackle this major social issue. Here's my suggestion: turn off whatever screen you're reading this from and strike up a conversation with someone who looks approachable. They could end up becoming your new best friend.