Virgin Galactic was going to be it: a pioneering commercial space tourism company offering air-launched suborbital hops into space for wealthy celebrity passengers. (Not that I’d ever have been able to afford the $250,000 ticket for a flight.) After the successful X-Prize flights of SpaceshipOne, it was supposed to be the dawning of a new age of commercial space. It hasn’t happened.
And then, disaster, as a feathering problem caused SpaceShipTwo to disintegrate early in a test flight, killing the copilot and injuring the pilot who managed to parachute to safety. Combined with the deadly Scaled Composites tank test explosion in 2007, incidents like these make me despair of safe commercial passenger spaceflight going mainstream anytime soon. Adam Rogers of Wired thinks risks like these aren’t worth a space tourism venture aimed at the wealthy. David Portree is even harsher, dismissing space tourism as a probable failure.
I want to go into space some day, and I’d like to still be hopeful about space tourism, but if Virgin Galactic is our most promising opportunity, there’s a long way to go still.