Investigation of Virgin Galactic Accident Reveals Some Clues, Reaction Reveals Much About Human Nature

Two days after Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo broke up in the skies over the Mojave Desert, the National Transportation Safety Board “go team” is on site. B Roll video release of the accident site is beginning to reveal some aspects of the disaster which took the life of Scale Composites test pilot Michael Alsbury, badly injured surviving pilot Peter Siebold, and is derailing Sir Richard Branson’s space tourism ambitions, perhaps permanently.

Somewhat surprisingly, still photos appear to show the solid rocket motor in its casing, largely intact and lying partially buried in the desert, an observation which is leading speculation towards a more complex scenario than a mere “explosion” as early reports suggested.

Even as the facts are beginning to come together, the disaster has also served a tabula rasa for commentators to insert their own theories and prejudices. This is nearly always the case with any tragedy large or small, and a part of human nature. It also however, reveals the nature of the humans involved.

The Telegraph has a story detailing a number of warnings about the design of SpaceShipTwo and its hybrid motor which were allegedly ignored. If substantiated they are quite serious, but some can also be interpreted as coming from a group with a definite axe to grind.

As for Virgin Galactic’s flamboyant founder, Sir Richard Branson, who arrived on site Saturday, he appears to be a man who is starting  to have some serious doubts about VG’s future, stating at a press conference  that he “hopes” his company will fly again.

Branson went on to criticize the early critics saying,  “To be honest I find it slightly irresponsible that people who know nothing about what they are saying can be saying things before the NTSB makes their comments.”

XPRIZE Chairman and CEO Peter Diamandis, who holds a VG ticket himself, was steadfast, stating:

“Today, most importantly, my heart goes out to those who have lost loved ones, and the many at Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites, and the Mojave Spaceport who this accident deeply affected. We are on the verge of opening the space frontier, one of the greatest endeavors of our species. Many Americans forget that 500 years ago thousands of European gave their lives to open the Americas, and 200 years ago, the early Americans risked their lives to open the West. This is what exploring is all about. We risk our lives for what we believe in. This is the American way — the explorer’s way. I for one, am proud to be a Virgin Galactic client. I believe in the company, and know without a doubt, that they will succeed, and I will fully trust them with my safety when my turn to fly materializes.”

A completely different point of view came in a piece entitled Space Tourism Isn’t Worth Dying For, which offers the opinion that one pilot was injured and one died “in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill-ride.”  What appears to be a deep seated resentment of the affluent.

“Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar. It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world” borders on obscuring what are some otherwise relevant observations.

For a much smaller group of space writers, matters got even more personal with the editor of the website Nasawatch, Keith Cowing, launching an unprovoked attack on Parabolicarc’s Doug Messier, calling him a “creep” and a “space ambulance chaser.”

Messier, who is based out of Mojave, has been closely following Virgin Galactic for years, and has broken a number of stories regarding the company, offering a valuable counterpoint to the steady stream of rosy publicity (some would say hype) coming from Virgin Galactic itself. In particular, this piece, which Doug posted prior to the fatal flight, offers a solid history of the challenges Virgin Galactic has faced on the long road to operations, highlighting what many besides Messier himself consider to be a series of design choices which were questionable at best. Eerily prescient, it is certainly worth a read.

As people come to grips with two major “commercial” space disasters within one tragic week. one thing seems sure. There is much more to be revealed, and if early reactions are any guide, the process may tell us as much about human nature and the perception of risk as it does about the technical challenges of reaching the high frontier.

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