If you’ve got $250,000 laying around the house you could soon find yourself in space without having to bother with astronaut training. Following the 2014 explosion in which one of Virgin Galactic’s pilots was killed, the company is ready to show the world its newest low-orbit spaceship, SpaceShipTwo.
SpaceShipTwo, similar but different
The two ships are almost identical in appearance though upgrades were surely made. “Most of the changes that we made were planned before the accident,” said Will Pomerantz, Vice President of Special Projects at Virgin Galactic. “With regard to the accident specifically, we have made one structural change to the vehicle, which is to add a mechanical inhibit to the featherlock system that would prevent that from ever being inadvertently opened at the wrong time in flight.”
Virgin Galactic is surely concerned about pilot error which was, indeed, the primary cause of the fatal crash.
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Pilot Michael Alsbury, unlocked a feathering mechanism when he shouldn’t have and it all went “pear shaped” from there. The unlocked feathering mechanism started a domino effect that ultimately saw the in-air explosion that killed him and severely injured the other pilot, Peter Siebold, according to the National Transportation Safety Bureau’s investigation.
The aerospace company responsible for SpaceShipTwo’s design, operation and, to some extent, demise was Scaled Composites. Virgin Galactic believes that Scaled Composites failed to adequately factor human error into its models and Scaled Composites was not used by Virgin Galactic this time as everything shifted to in-house production.
Private space operations are picking up speed
While Virgin Galactic is essentially the only private company focused on space tourism while others look at different ways of making money in space. Elon Musk’s SpaceX and Amazon founder, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are concentrating on making both human and cargo space flight more affordable with reusable rockets. SpaceX has already made a number of supply runs to the International Space Station and has received clearance to launch a manned flight to the ISS carrying NASA astronauts in 2017.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin have successfully landed a rocket vertically after launch but the Blue Origin craft flew considerably lower.
Sierra Nevada and Orbital ATK are another two private space companies but those two are solely working on cargo flights into space.
Virgin Galactic continues to sell space flight tickets at a good clip but insists that it is not in any particular hurry and that “isn’t a race.” As to safety, Virgin Galactic says that it is, “committed to being thorough in our testing.”
“We’re trying to democratize access to space,” says Pomerantz. “The total number of human beings who have ever been to space as of today is 552.”
According to the iconic billionaire behind Virgin Galactic, Richard Branson, 800 tickets have already been sold by his company.
While Branson and his team are committed to testing and going at a proper pace, it was the testing of the last space ship that caused the death of one of its pilots. Additionally, there is little doubt that Branson definitely wants to be the owner of the first company to offer commercial space flight to the “masses.” 800 people is hardly the masses, but that said, it would more than double the amount of people that have been to space relatively quickly depending on how many space ships the company produces.