Recent accidents in commercial spaceflight should not deter further efforts

By Johnny McCabe

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Last week was not a good omen for the future of human aerospace. After two high-profile costly disasters, one of which claimed a human life, the global media has been abuzz with skepticism and criticism over the responsibility of investing so much energy and capital into highly dangerous programs with seemingly no demonstrable immediate benefit. Private companies have also been called into question, allegedly for prioritizing profit margins over the much stricter safety standards of government organizations like NASA. With widespread social inequality, conflicts in the Middle East and a recovering yet uneasy global economy, it seems like the worst possible opportunity to spend time and money researching space exploration. However, these disasters are only two of a likely multitude of necessary roadblocks on the way to unlocking one of humanity’s greatest limiters – our attachment to the finite planet Earth.

The first accident, which occurred last Tuesday evening, concerned the explosion of the Antares rocket and its accompanying Cygnus cargo vehicle a mere six seconds after liftoff at a NASA launch facility in Virginia. The rocket, which perished in a catastrophic fireball, was carrying food, hardware and other supplies destined for the International Space Station. While the explosion took place on a NASA launchpad, the rocket itself was designed, developed and built by Orbital Sciences Corporation, an aerospace contractor. Nobody was harmed, although both the loss of the rocket and the extensive damage to the facility come at a significant cost to NASA.

The second accident involved a failed test flight of private spaceflight company Virgin Galactic’s prototype “SpaceShipTwo” commercial spaceflight vehicle, which “came down in pieces” in the Mojave Desert after separating from its parent aircraft, according to The Verge. One test pilot was killed in the crash, while the other was taken to the hospital with serious injuries.

Each disaster is completely unrelated, but both serve as jumping-off points for critics of space exploration and private enterprise in spaceflight. While the Antares rocket was on an unmanned cargo run, Virgin Galactic has occupied a unique and extremely public role at the forefront of commercial space travel. The waitlist for its prohibitively expensive services features celebrities and multimillionaires butting elbows with each other. With such an elite potential clientele, it becomes very easy to construct a narrative, which paints the immediate future of space travel as the sole providence of the ultra-rich and greedy inhuman corporations. Furthermore, the Antares explosion makes NASA look unprofessional and irresponsible for jeopardizing resources and funding on rockets that can’t even get off the ground.

However, these narratives do very little to consider the innumerable positive technological, social and scientific gains that space exploration has yielded over the scant decades since it became an actual practical possibility. Advances in satellite technology yielded GPS and massive advances in telecommunications. Breakthroughs in robotics have completely redefined medical science and industry and developments in solar energy used to power spacecraft and orbital installations have opened incredible doors to sustainable, renewable energy. All of this progress has come at the expense of accidents, errors and dead ends – however, to characterize the nature of space exploration by its missteps would be to deny the incredible changes it has made to our society over such a short period of time.

Furthermore, to demonize the private industry for its shortcomings in much the same way only stifles the pace of further innovation and fails to recognize the powerful potential for progress of an energized and competitive private sector. Companies like SpaceX have made revolutionary breakthroughs in reusable spacecraft propulsion and launch systems, and have worked closely in concert with NASA to hasten the pace of research as much as possible. In many ways, SpaceX represents a natural response to the shortcomings of governmental space agencies, which may or may not be hampered by bureaucracy or lack of funding. The developments over the past few years and the success of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and Dragon reusable spacecrafts clearly illustrate that neither the private sector nor the government should pursue space exploration and travel in a vacuum – more is accomplished when they work together than could ever be trivialized by their failures.

Despite recent setbacks, we should not shy away from the boundless possibilities that further research into space and space travel will undoubtedly provide, merely because we fear the possibility of failure. It is natural, and even responsible, to question the ways in which both governments and entities in the private sector go about conducting this research. But we should do so in an effort to keep them responsible, efficient and accountable, not for the sake of tearing them down. We have progressed from air travel to space travel within the past century – this is a rate of technological progress that has never before been achieved in human history. It would be a shame to retreat back to dry land just after getting our feet wet.

Johnny McCabe is a Collegian columnist and can be reached at [email protected]