If your heart is tied to aviation then you probably felt a little bit crushed, deflated, last month, when the aerospace world took one step forward, then two big steps back, all in one week.
Google executive Alan Eustace rose to, then fell from 135,000 feet on October 25, breaking a fairly recent record of just under 128,000 feet set by Felix Baumgartner in a much publicized Red Bull-sponsored stunt just a couple years ago. Eustace, unlike Baumgartner, performed his feat in relative obscurity. He told the press afterward that he wanted to make sure the gamble worked before publicizing it. What was unusual about the skydive was that Eustace used only a pressure suit and an 11 million cubic foot balloon to ascend—no fancy pressure capsule needed.
Eustace had clearly studied the Baumgartner jump, because he chose a different freefall position, and wore in his pressure suit a forced-heated-air system to keep his faceplate from fogging. The result was a much more stable five minute freefall to earth—one he could actually watch from inside his pressure suit. The gambit was a risk, and it worked out. One step forward.
On the other hand, just five days later Orbital Sciences had to destroy an Antares rocket and payload seconds after liftoff when one of the rocket’s venerable engines failed. The company had been purchasing the engines from Russian sources. Company CEO David Thompson told press that the company will find different engines for its rockets from now on.
Hot on the heels of this news came the inflight breakup of SpaceShipTwo, killing the co-pilot, Michael Tyner Alsbury, and injuring its pilot, Peter Siebold. The aircraft was in its final flight testing regime, and was expected to begin taking passengers into near-earth orbit sometime in 2015.
There is no question of that happening now. Richard Branson, CEO of Virgin Galactic, is clearly heartbroken and deeply concerned as the crash investigation progresses. The NTSB hints at possible causes, but I won’t be an armchair investigator and go into any details about an ongoing NTSB investigation here. The lay press are bad enough at that.
One step forward, two big steps back. The result is that the budding commercial space industry had a very bad month in October; and we are left with questions about the wisdom of how NASA contract monies are being spent; and even whether the dream of space tourism is a reasonable possibility, given today’s technology.
Personally? I want to see Branson shake it off and get back to the task of innovating, for the sake of humanity. Sure, those first flights are going to be little more than joyrides, but think of the possibilities that kind of technology may have for our future. Aerospace is about speed and altitude and moving people and materials as quickly and efficiently as possible. It always has been about that, at the core. Branson’s dream could jump us forward—something that hasn’t happened since the days of Concorde.
Or it could be a false path, as Concorde turned out to be. The thing is, we won’t know until we try. I hope he keeps trying until the universe finally grants him success.