Keep On Dreaming
Not long after we sent our last issue to the printer, with a “Letter” extolling innovation by private aerospace companies, dual disasters struck that industry. On October 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket carrying cargo for the International Space Station exploded 15 seconds after liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Island launch facility. Then three days later Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert after breaking apart during a rocket-powered test flight, killing copilot Michael Alsbury and seriously injuring pilot Peter Siebold.
The twin tragedies sent a shockwave through the nascent commercial aerospace industry, and led some to question the wisdom of relying on private enterprise for the challenging task of sending cargo and astronauts into space. But as Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides observed following the accident: “Space is hard, and today was a tough day….The future rests, in many ways, on hard days like this. But we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who have been working so hard on them to understand this and to move forward, which is what we’ll do.” Orbital, for its part, announced plans to discontinue using refurbished Soviet-era rocket engines, the suspected cause of the Antares accident.
Amid these setbacks were hopeful signs that aerospace dreamers will continue to innovate, regardless of the risks. Four days before the Antares blowup, Google executive Alan Eustace attached himself to a giant helium-filled balloon, ascended to almost 136,000 feet in a specially designed pressure suit and fell to earth at speeds in excess of Mach 1. The parachute jump, conducted with little fanfare, broke records set by Felix Baumgartner in his highly publicized 2012 effort sponsored by Red Bull.
On November 10, NASA announced that it had closed a deal with Google subsidiary Planetary Ventures to lease part of the former Moffett Field Naval Air Station near San Francisco, where the company will establish facilities for “research, development, assembly and testing in the areas of space exploration, aviation, rover/robotics and other emerging technologies,” according to a NASA statement. The aerospace agency manages the site, which is home to three huge hangars, including the eight-acre Hangar One, built in 1933 to house the U.S. Navy airship Macon.
Most inspiring of all, on November 13 an enraptured world watched as the European Space Agency pulled off an amazing achievement by landing a spacecraft on the surface of a comet. The 10-year Rosetta mission culminated in the landing by the washing-machine-sized Philae, “the little lander that could.” Although Philae bounced unexpectedly into a shady spot and subsequently went into hibernation due to lack of power, the Rosetta team hopes it will return to operation this spring or summer once the comet gets closer to the sun, enabling the lander’s solar cells to recharge its batteries. Then with luck it can get back to its original mission, which is no less than sampling and analyzing the building blocks of our solar system.
As has been the case since before the Wright brothers, when faced with setbacks aerospace innovators invariably get back up, dust themselves off and go to work again. That’s what Orbital and Virgin Galactic are doing, and that’s what other private aerospace companies will do when they experience the inevitable difficulties inherent in pushing the boundaries of technological progress. After all, this is literally rocket science.