It's been a rough week for the private space industry. On Friday, Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip Two crashed during a flight test in the Mojave Desert, killing one and seriously injuring another. On Tuesday, an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded six seconds after lift-off in Virginia.
The back-to-back accidents raise inevitable questions about the safety and reliability of the emerging private space industry. Will space tourists and companies that want to put cargo into orbit take the risk?
“Gut reaction, this is a major setback,” said James Pura, president of Space Frontier Foundation, a non-profit that advocates more space exploration. “A lot of our hopes and dreams in the private commercial space industry lie in the success of the leading companies, and Virgin Galactic is one of those.”
The private space industry is receiving a huge influx of investment and attention. Elon Musk's Space X, for example, has a number of contracts to deliver satellites and cargo into space. Another company, Planetary Sciences, backed by billionaires like Google's Larry Page and Eric Schmidt, plans to mine asteroids. Meanwhile, Blue Origin, founded by Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, got started in 2010 as a space tourism business, but has since detoured into making rocket engines.
Virgin Galactic, the space tourism start-up founded by Virgin mogul Richard Branson, had plans to take its first commercial trip 62 miles into the stratosphere by the end of the year. Over 700 customers have paid $250,000 to take a trip.
But it may be difficult to meet that goal after today's accident, in which a test flight experienced what the company described as an "in-flight anomaly" that sent the craft hurtling to the ground. At least one of the test pilots escaped by parachute.
"Space is hard. And today was a tough day," Virgin Galactic CEO George Whitesides said.
Earlier in the week, Orbital Sciences, a company that carries customer payloads into space, suffered a huge setback when its launch went haywire. A rocket it launched in Virginia had to be destroyed just seconds after taking off.
"It is far too early to know the details of what happened,” Frank Culbertson, Orbital’s executive vice president and general manager of its advanced programs group, said in a statement. “As we begin to gather information, our primary concern lies with the ongoing safety and security of those involved in our response and recovery operations.
"From a financial standpoint it will take some time to assess the precise impacts; however, I can tell you that Orbital's view for 2014 remains unchanged," Garrett Pierce, Orbital Sciences' vice chairman and CFO, said on a conference call with analysts and investors.
Of course, private space companies aren't the only to suffer setbacks. NASA has had its own high-profile mishaps over the years, including two Space Shuttle accidents. Whether governmental efforts are any more risky than private launches is unclear. But one thing is certain.
“Space flight is inherently risky and we as humans are curious about space and always will be,” Pura, the foundation president, said. “Those brave pioneers are turning science fiction into reality. Our heart goes out to those brave pioneers at this time.”