A brave test pilot is dead and another one critically injured—in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.
To be clear: I like spaceships. A lot. I went to the first landing of the space shuttle post-Challenger disaster. I went to the Mojave for the first test flight of SpaceShipOne, nominally to cover it but really just to gaze in wonder. I root for SpaceX, and felt real disappointment at Orbital Sciences’ Antares disaster this week.
But in the wake of this tragedy out at Mojave—not even the first time a SpaceShipTwo test has killed someone—we’re going to hear a lot about exploration, about pioneers and frontiers. People are going to talk about Giant Leaps for Mankind and Boldly Going Where No One Has Gone Before. And we should call bullshit on that.
SpaceShipTwo—at least, the version that has the Virgin Galactic livery painted on its tail—is not a Federation starship. It’s not a vehicle for the exploration of frontiers. This would be true even if Virgin Galactic did more than barely brush up against the bottom of space. Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar. It’s a thing for rich people to do: pay $250,000 to not feel the weight of the world.
People get rich; they spend money. Sometimes it’s vulgar, but it’s the system we all seem to accept. When it costs the lives of the workers building that system, we should stop accepting it.
Governments and businesses have always positioned space travel as a glorious journey. But that is a misdirect. It is branding. The Apollo program was the most technologically sophisticated propaganda front of the Cold War, a battle among superpowers for scientific bragging rights. Don’t get mad—that truth doesn’t diminish the brilliance of the achievement. It doesn’t mean that the engineers weren’t geniuses or the astronauts weren’t brave or skilled. But it does make problematic, at least a little, the idea that those astronauts were explorers opening up a new frontier.
Historically, frontiers have always been dicey. What the average Western European thought of as a frontier in the 1600s was someone else’s land. And the reasons for going toward frontiers have always been complicated by economics. Was Columbus brave? Sure, probably. But he was also looking for a trade route. Were the conquistadores intrepid? Yeah. But they were looking for gold and land. Do human beings have a drive to push past horizons, over mountains, into the unknown? Manifestly. But we always balance that drive and desire with its potential outcomes. We go when there’s something there.
Virgin Galactic is building the world’s most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar.
That’s why a space program designed to get humanity off our native planet makes sense—but only a specific kind. Eventually this planet is going to be unlivable, either because of something we humans do to it or something natural. Asteroids have wiped Earth clean before, and presumably they’ll do it again. It’d be good to not be here when it happens. Elon Musk has made that part of his explicit rationale for SpaceX, his rocket company. Going to space is wondrous, difficult, and a testament to the human spirit. It’s also utterly, cynically practical. That’s being a pioneer.
And it’s a mistake to lump that kind of endeavor with Virgin Galactic. Exploration and evacuation are not its value proposition. The technology SpaceShipTwo employs is not, except perhaps in its broadest description, designed to take humanity off-world. It’s genius engineering, but it isn’t about exploring anything except the legitimately difficult challenge of a rocket plane that can go very, very high. It is about making space tourism into a viable business.
Testing new aircraft takes a level of courage and ability beyond most humans. The pilots who work out the kinks in military fighters and giant transport planes are keeping their various countries safe (let’s agree to believe) or helping further the global economy. And it doesn’t take any less bravery or skill to test the planes Virgin Galactic wants to fly. Those engineers and those pilots are at the peak of human achievement. What they’re doing is amazing. Why Virgin is doing it is not.
When various corporate representatives eulogize those two pilots as pioneers who were helping to cross the Final Frontier, that should make you angry. That pilot died not for space but for a luxury service provider. His death doesn’t get us closer to Mars; it keeps rich people further away from weightlessness and a beautiful view.