A number of experts say two disastrous crashes last week mean big trouble for the private spaceflight industry. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed Friday, injuring one pilot and killing another, three days after an Orbital Sciences Corp.’s unmanned Antares rocket exploded after takeoff.
Michael Listner said the regulations are likely on the way for private spaceflight and space tourism companies, but speculation should be kept at a minimum until the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) determines what caused both crashes. The latest reports now say pilot error could have caused the Virgin Galactic crash after video showed the flight’s co-pilot unlocking the plane’s tail section prematurely, Reuters reported.
“Say if it was pilot error in the Virgin Galactic crash -- how do you regulate against that?” Listner asked. However, there is a “very good chance” Congress will not renew a moratorium that prevents the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Space Transportation from regulating the safety of passengers aboard spacecraft. “We’re not going to really know until the NTSB gets its work done and presents its findings.”
A number of experts said the crashes mean little for the future of space travel. Former astronaut Tom Henricks told CNBC the crashes are “not the end of private space flight or commercial space flight.”
Virgin Galactic’s first fatal accident occurred in 2007 after a nitrous oxide fuel tank exploded during a test, killing three contract employees who were watching. The company has continued to ignore safety concerns over the use of nitrous oxide, said Carolynne Campbell, a rocket expert with the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety. She told the Daily Mail Virgin Galactic should “go away and do something they might be good at, like selling mobile phones.”
Virgin Galactic and founder and billionaire entrepreneur Richard Branson had created “dangerous” working conditions, according to investigative journalist and Branson biographer Tom Bower. He told BBC Today: “All the engineers in California working on the project I've spoken to said it was very dangerous. Just a few weeks ago, the last of many of the Virgin Galactic engineers walked out of the factory and said he'd never work there again.”
Virgin Galactic says safety is the company's "north star," but "just like early air or sea travel, it is hard and complicated." Only about 24 of its customers have requested refunds, the company says, with 800 having placed deposits for a $250,000 flight. Branson told the BBC he still plans to fly with his two adult children before any customers, but called the accident a “horrible setback.”
"Rumors and innuendo from self-proclaimed experts can be put back in their box," Branson told the BBC. “If any of our rocket engineers warned something wasn’t safe to go, we wouldn’t go. I’ve spent 30 years running three airlines without incident.”