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.

Send your name into space on Orion’s maiden flight

This in from NASA:

October 7, 2014

RELEASE 14-275

Send Your Name on NASA’s Journey to Mars, Starting with Orion’s First Flight

Send your name to Mars on Orion

Image Credit: NASA

If only your name could collect frequent flyer miles. NASA is inviting the public to send their names on a microchip to destinations beyond low-Earth orbit, including Mars.

Your name will begin its journey on a dime-sized microchip when the agency’s Orion spacecraft launches Dec. 4 on its first flight, designated Exploration Flight Test-1. After a 4.5 hour, two-orbit mission around Earth to test Orion’s systems, the spacecraft will travel back through the atmosphere at speeds approaching 20,000 mph and temperatures near 4,000 degrees Fahrenheit, before splashing down in the Pacific Ocean.

But the journey for your name doesn’t end there. After returning to Earth, the names will fly on future NASA exploration flights and missions to Mars. With each flight, selected individuals will accrue more miles as members of a global space-faring society.

“NASA is pushing the boundaries of exploration and working hard to send people to Mars in the future,” said Mark Geyer, Orion Program manager. “When we set foot on the Red Planet, we’ll be exploring for all of humanity. Flying these names will enable people to be part of our journey.”

The deadline for receiving a personal “boarding pass” on Orion’s test flight closes Friday Oct. 31. The public will have an opportunity to keep submitting names beyond Oct. 31 to be included on future test flights and future NASA missions to Mars.

To submit your name to fly on Orion’s flight test, visit:

http://go.usa.gov/vcpz

Join the conversation on social media using the hashtag #JourneyToMars.

For information about Orion and its first flight, visit:

http://www.nasa.gov/orion

-end-

Well my name is on the flight! Now to send my family’s names as well…

To boldly go…in space in microchip.