Commercial Space Flights

…and accidents. Last week an Orbital Sciences commercial rocket, launched on an ISS resupply mission from NASA’s Wallops Island, VA, facility, exploded shortly after launch. There were no injuries. A few days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo exploded shortly after release from its mother ship; this time, one of the pilots of SpaceShipTwo was killed and the other injured.

The handwringing has begun. These two accidents may spell the end of commercial manned space flight. They may be the death knell of commercial rocket flight. They may spell doomsday.


Both of those programs are in early development stages; accidents and failures are a normal, if unfortunate, part of the process. That a man died in one of them is especially unfortunate, but that also is a risk that’s run in this sort of development.

Another commercial rocket company has been flying resupply missions to the ISS for two years—not always glitch-free, but successfully. It remains on track to begin flying manned resupply missions to the ISS in the 2017 time frame.

NASA’s manned space flight program lost astronauts to space capsule fires while on the ground; it lost astronauts to Shuttle explosions both on launch and on return to orbit. It almost lost astronauts when an explosion occurred on an Apollo capsule that was in space, headed to the moon.

Our aircraft development programs have lost pilots to accidents during development, and we have lost passengers to crashed production commercial airliners, including one that disappeared last spring while enroute from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing.

Certainly Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic need to learn what went wrong on these flights, as did NASA need to do and aircraft developers need to do. Airlines need to understand what went wrong regarding their accidents. All need to correct those things. They did, and they do, and OSC and Virgin Galactic will, too. It’s all a normal part of development.

Commercial space flight, whether manned or unmanned, is not at risk from these two accidents, but only from the angst being drummed up by the doomsayers.

When, not if, commercial flight becomes routine—whether for tourism or for operations—we’ll all be the better off for having gotten another industry, seeded by government, out of government’s hands.

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