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This is part four of a five-part series on the business of space
The part of the commercial space economy that most captures our imagination is space tourism. The race is on to develop a spaceship that will take paying customers to space and back. But the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in October, killing one test pilot, showed the world that spaceflight is an adventure with extremely high stakes.
Virgin Galactic is already in production on its latest spaceship, the 202VG, nicknamed Hope. George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic, said the company hopes to begin testing the craft in early 2015. He said the future of Hope depends on the results of the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) investigation of the crash of SpaceShipTwo.
“The one thing I can guarantee my crew is, I don’t know when the next mishap will occur, but I know it will occur. It happens to be an element of the business we’re in.”
CEO, Mojave Air and Space Port
“If there are recommendations from the NTSB, we’re going to look at those recommendations carefully and try and integrate those into the vehicle,” he said. “But I think now we’re pretty hopeful that we’ll be able to put this vehicle in service and move forward. Because that’s what we’re all here to do.”
“Real Money” was at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Southern California just days after the crash. The port is roughly the equivalent of Silicon Valley for commercial space. It’s where Virgin Galactic and Xcor test their spacecraft and where dozens of other companies have chosen to develop their space businesses.
These companies aren’t strangers to risk, said Stuart Witt, the CEO of the spaceport. “I’ve been the chief executive of Mojave for 13 years,” he said. “The one thing I can guarantee my crew is, I don’t know when the next mishap will occur, but I know it will occur. It happens to be an element of the business we’re in.”
Virgin Galactic was the front-runner to take paying customers to suborbital space. But the crash was a devastating setback for the company and sent ripples throughout the rest of the commercial space industry.
Ask anyone in the space business, and they all say the same thing: Space is hard. But human spaceflight is particularly dangerous. The death rate for people who have gone into space or Earth orbit is about 4 percent: 18 of the 430 humans who have flown in space have died during their missions. By comparison, only 2 of every 100 million passengers have died on commercial air flights in the last decade.
As Virgin Galactic and other companies compete to get off the ground, former Apollo 9 astronaut Rusty Schweickart said that, while tragic, death is inevitable in space innovation. “All of us who flew in Apollo and, for that matter, before and after Apollo, were very well aware of the fact that we were involved in an intrinsically risky business,” he said. “When you do things of this kind, you will have failures if human life is involved, and you will have people dying. That’s the price of advancing.”
Whitesides said that although the crash has spooked some of its customers, Virgin Galactic is still signing on more people to go into space. “We have a customer base of about 700 people who have put down deposits,” he said. “We had a few of those, about two dozen, decide that they didn’t want to go forward. But we’ve also had a substantial amount of people who decided they wanted to sign up since then. They say they want this thing to exist, and they want to put down money to show that they believe that this thing should move forward. So we’ve been heartened by that,” he said.
Virgin Galactic’s delay has caused concern in New Mexico, where Spaceport America was built as a terminal for paying customers going to space. The company was scheduled to move operations to Spaceport America this month. But after the crash, the timeline was pushed back. New Mexico has already spent more than $200 million in the construction of the spaceport, with the hopes of bringing jobs to the area and sparking a space economy there. Spaceport officials now hope that Virgin Galactic will move in by late 2016 but expect a $1.6 million shortfall as a result. Some local lawmakers say Spaceport America is in jeopardy.
But Whitesides is optimistic. “I think it’s going to turn out to be a very important and productive investment for them in southern New Mexico. We’re excited about moving down there, and that’s the plan, and once we’re finished with our test-flight program on the second spaceship, we’ll do that,” he said. “But the important thing is, we really are — all of us in the industry — exploring a new frontier, and it’s hard.”