Like a Virgin

“Lock S-foils in hype position!” Credit: Virgin Galactic

I’d started noodling on this a couple of months ago, then things happened fast: Blue Origin made a third suborbital flight of New Shepard and lifted the curtains at their Kent, WA headquarters, while SpaceX finally landed a Falcon first stage on a barge at sea and plans to seriously step up their ops tempo.

And Virgin Galactic continues to, well…I’m not sure what they’re doing. I used to be a lot more enthusiastic about their potential, but ten years’ worth of empty hype tends to take the shine off things. That, and the body count. To be fair, it’s a hard lesson in the peculiarities of high-mach aircraft. Trying to create a reusable, passenger-carrying spacecraft with similar attributes has to be orders of magnitude more difficult. To hear Jeff Bezos tell it, it’s comparatively simple to stand a rocket on its tail and have it autonomously guide itself back to a vertical landing. Branson’s swagger is beyond the pale, however: “Our spaceship comes back and lands on wheels. Theirs don’t.”

Except when it doesn’t come back. An altogether ill-considered and callous remark, considering how many people have died for a program that is a decade behind schedule. Not to mention that he’s taunting the two men who are literally leaving him behind in a cloud of smoke.

Make no mistake: I want them to succeed. If they can make this work and progress towards suborbital point-to-point travel (their stated intention), it would be revolutionary. But it’s hard to cheer for a program with so many unresolved problems and undelivered promises that just can’t shut up about how wonderful they are. James Oberg’s coverage of last February’s “SpaceShip 2.1” rollout is well worth a read:

For SpaceShipTwo, the critical failure was in the assumption—perhaps unspoken—that no pilot would unlock the tail brake during powered flight. The feathered design tilts the aft stabilizers up 90 degrees from the horizontal to ensure reentry stability. But according to the National Transportation Safety Board’s post-accident assessment, inadequate attention was paid to how unexpected manual inputs to the tail-feathering function could have lethal consequences. This wasn’t ‘pilot error.’ It was design and training error.

Assuming your highly trained test pilots won’t make a fatal mistake simply because they’re highly trained test pilots is just asking for trouble. I hope their spaceline’s operating procedures are a little more robust, because an accident with paying passengers could have enormous consequences.


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