Suborbital flights fall to earth with SpaceShipTwo

In the past two days we have seen the tragic loss of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo and the beginnings of the realization that what SpaceShipTwo represents is hubris for the extremely wealthy.

SpaceShipTwo crash debris photo courtesy of The Register

In an article by Wired, called “Space Tourism isn’t worth dying for” we have acknowledgement that space travel is at the very limits of technology:

A brave test pilot is dead and another one critically injured—in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.

To be clear: I like spaceships. A lot. I went to the first landing of the space shuttle post-Challenger disaster. I went to the Mojave for the first test flight of SpaceShipOne, nominally to cover it but really just to gaze in wonder. I root for SpaceX, and felt real disappointment at Orbital Sciences’ Antares disaster this week.

But in the wake of this tragedy out at Mojave—not even the first time a SpaceShipTwo test has killed someone—we’re going to hear a lot about exploration, about pioneers and frontiers. People are going to talk about Giant Leaps for Mankind and Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before. And we should call bullshit on that.

SpaceShipTwo—at least, the version that has the Virgin Galactic livery painted on its tail—is not a Federation starship. It’s not a vehicle for the exploration of frontiers. This would be true even if Virgin Galactic did more than barely brush up against the bottom of space. 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.

People get rich; they spend money. Sometimes it’s vulgar, but it’s the system we all seem to accept. When it costs the lives of the workers building that system, we should stop accepting it.

That fourth paragraph is the truth – that Virgin Galactic’s suborbital space flights are literally a mega-expensive rollercoaster that goes nowhere but endangers lives for no purpose at all.

It doesn’t even go anywhere: you take off from New Mexico and land in New Mexico (when they are supposed to be doing this commercially)

Graphic courtesy of The Guardian Media Group

But then of course in the very same article we move from the sublime to the ridiculous with Elon Musk’s vision for SpaceX:

That’s why a space program designed to get humanity off our native planet makes sense—but only a specific kind. Eventually this planet is going to be unlivable, either because of something we humans do to it or something natural. Asteroids have wiped Earth clean before, and presumably they’ll do it again. It’d be good to not be here when it happens. Elon Musk has made that part of his explicit rationale for SpaceX, his rocket company. Going to space is wondrous, difficult, and a testament to the human spirit. It’s also utterly, cynically practical. That’s being a pioneer.

Now that’s what I call a statement of “hard science fiction” at its finest – a testament to the power of science fiction narratives to override any sense or scientific credibility. Especially when those grandiose schemes come from a billionaire with vaulting ambitions and lots of spare money.

Space travel with our current levels of technology is a continuous battle for survival in a Universe hostile to life in all its forms. And we simply don’t have the answers to a lot of key questions about survival without contact with the Earth’s biosphere.

Even if we get to Mars, as I’ve already pointed out, we would be trying to colonize a dead planet which has toxic soils, a thin unbreathable atmosphere and deadly solar radiation. A desperate battle for survival from the moment of takeoff and for the rest of those colonists’ lives and for what reason? What overriding purpose? Would anyone want to have children in such a place?

For those who still think big, why not study the experience of the Viking colonists of Greenland, who migrated in the 10th and 11th Century and then slowly died a horrible lingering decline of near starvation for perhaps 150 years. First the harbours were blocked as sea ice clogged them as the climate turned colder, then the crops failed as the growing season became ever shorter until eventually they ate their way through their remaining cattle until they had nothing left. There were no trees so they couldn’t build ships. They were cut off and forgotten by their originating cultures.

Only more recently, has the recent warming of the 20th Century revealed the frozen remains of what were once homes and stables. It’s still colder there than it was in the 11th Century.

Want to colonize Mars? Try colonizing  Greenland or Antarctica without help or hope of rescue. Then get back to me on what a wonderful experience it was.

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