12:27 GMT30 November 2020
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    The crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo in California’s Mojave desert has apparently dealt a severe blow to the dreams of space travel for the ordinary person. But the history of space exploration gives us hope.

    When Sputnik reached space in October 1957, it launched the boyhood dreams of millions. A silver capsule made many wonder just when humans could also escape the confines of the earth's gravity.

    This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow October 9, 1957, showing the four-antennaed satellite resting on a three-legged pedestal.
    © AP Photo / ZENTRALBILD PICTURE SERVICE
    This first official picture of the Soviet satellite Sputnik I was issued in Moscow October 9, 1957, showing the four-antennaed satellite resting on a three-legged pedestal.

    It is hard to imagine the significance of that special moment nearly six decades on. The ‘space race', Moon landings and the creation of the International Space Station make that historic and monumental leap in technology seem quaint by comparison.
    British businessman and entrepreneur Sir Richard Branson had seemingly been on the brink of sending paying passengers into the fringes of infinite space, when a test flight of SpaceshipTwo went terribly wrong.
    Investigators say that the plane broke apart in mid-air seconds after its re-entry system deployed prematurely.
    It was equipped with a feathering system to reduce its speed and stabilise its descent on return to Earth. However, it appears that the mechanism may have been activated before the space plane had reached the correct speed.
    What few realise is that the technology for sub-orbital flight to which Sir Richard aspires, existed in the days when that Soviet sphere took flight from Baikonur all those years ago.
    David Ashford is author of the book Space Exploration, All That Matters.
    He is also the founder of Bristol Spaceplanes, a company aiming to promote a way of slashing the cost of access to space.
    Mr. Ashford says that in the 1960s, the majority of big aircraft companies in Europe and the US studied so-called ‘space planes' in depth.
    However, the Cold War took priority in the military strategy of the USA and the USSR and so design teams were disbanded. He describes this as a "major failure" in space policy.
    According to Mr. Ashford, "These planes were not developed at the time because of the space race and the habit of throwing away launch vehicles stuck. The amazing thing is that space planes have not been developed."
    From Bristol in the west of Britain, far from the high technology hubs of Russia and the USA, Mr Ashford's ambitions are even higher than those of Sir Richard Branson.
    For him, sub-orbital excursions will simply be a stepping stone to orbital flights.
    There is a difference in approach though. He says his starting point is completely different to that of Virgin Galactic, which is pioneering new technology.

    Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two
    © Photo : Rex Features
    Virgin Galactic SpaceShip Two

    "Our starting point is a British rocket fighter that flew in 1957 — the Saunders Roe 53. It was cancelled as a fighter fairly quickly, but then Saunders Roe proposed converting the two prototypes for space research. They wanted to take away the jet engine to make room for more rocket fuel and launch it from a V bomber and that would have gone up and down into space."
    There has been criticism over the testing process for Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo. It had previously fired its rocket engine in flight only once in 2014 and that was back in January.
    Engineers had been trying to decide which kind of fuel to use, one that burnt a rubber-type product or one that burnt a plastic grain. They plumped for the latter and so last week's launch saw the first use of the plastic fuel.
    Even though the initial investigation appears to show that neither problems with the fuel nor the engine were behind the crash, there is always a danger of testing new technology.

    SpaceShipTwo
    © AP Photo / Ringo H.W. Chiu
    The Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo space tourism rocket exploded Friday, Oct. 31, 2014, during a test flight, killing a pilot aboard and seriously injuring another while scattering wreckage in Southern California's Mojave Desert, witnesses and officials said.

    This is something that Bristol Spaceplanes manages to sidestep.
    David Ashford said: "What we are doing, the sub-orbital project called Ascender, is in effect an updated and simplified Saunders Roe 53. Once we have done that, we go onto an orbital space plane which is very like the 1960s designs. So we are using tried and tested ideas."
    Soon after the accident, the CEO of Virgin Galactic George Whitesides summed up what rocket scientists had known all along.
    "Space is hard and today was a tough day. The future in many ways rests on hard days like this."
    The Virgin Galactic crash was the second space mission within a week to suffer a setback. Just days before, the Antares rocket on a resupply mission to the International Space Station when it exploded over its Virginia Launchpad six seconds into the flight.
    An executive at Orbital, the private contractor that was carrying out that mission, lamented the lack of more modern alternatives to its rocket engines which are a modified version of the Soviet NK33 built in the late 1960s and early 1970s for the ultimately unsuccessful programme of putting Soviet cosmonauts on the Moon.
    Professor Andrew Coates is head of the planetary science group at the Mullard Space Science Laboratory, University College London. He also leads the ExoMars PanCam team for the 2018 rover.
    He believes mistakes are part and parcel of the early stages of any programme, space tourism included.
    "The first attempt at launching the Cluster mission went wrong on the first Ariane 5 rocket. A Russian mission to Mars failed after being launched and the British Beagle 2 did not get to the surface of Mars.
    "There are a lot of things that have to go right in space flight, but what you do is turn around and try again. I am sure Virgin Galactic will brush themselves off and try again. But this is a very sharp wake-up call to the dream of space tourism."
    There has been no shortage of criticism, much of it from rocket scientists themselves who say the crash shows that the Virgin Galactic plans should be shelved and that Sir Richard Branson has been guilty of hubris.
    But others describe them as teething problems that may delay but will not ultimately curb the dream of space tourism.
    Professor John Zarnecki, chairman of the UK Space Agency science policy advisory committee, said the accident could delay sub-orbital space tourism by five years. He did point out though that would not necessarily be a reason to give up.
    As Professor Andrew Coates from University College London says: "Arguably the space tourism thing is less important than understanding mankind's place in the universe, but nevertheless there are people who want to do it. There is a market out there so it is tapping that market and making it into something is a brave but ultimately successful venture."
    To be a technology pioneer comes at a high price tag. At $250,000 a pop, those who have big dreams to fly near space on Virgin Galactic will have to have equally big wallets.
    But if smaller commercial enterprises have their way that price tag could eventually come down to a few thousand dollars. And that would hopefully put space tourism within the reach of the person on the street.

     

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