I am writing this while sitting in a commercial airplane typing on a laptop that is wirelessly connected to the internet, drinking a chilled glass of clean water. The numerous technologies needed to make this situation possible are mind blowing to me as an engineer. That I am thousands of feet off the ground at this moment is amazing to me and was beyond the wildest dreams of my relatives just a few generations ago.
Last week was a devastating week for spaceflight.
On Tuesday Orbital Science’s Antares rocket, en route to the International Space Station with supplies and scientific experiments, exploded. On seeing the first images from Wallops island, my thoughts went to the ground crew on site at the launch. It was with great relief that I read that no injuries were caused by this explosion. Just three short days later, I saw the horrible news of the crash of SpaceShipTwo which, unlike Antares, was a vehicle with a crew. It wasn’t long before there was confirmation that one pilot had been killed and the other was en route to a hospital. A few hours later, I watched my husband (wearing an astronaut costume he had planned weeks earlier) trick-or-treating with our daughters, and it was impossible not to think of the family whose test-pilot father isn’t coming home. As an engineering professor I also spent time thinking of the team of engineers who had worked on the vehicle in which he died.
When things go right, we sometimes applaud technology, engineers and the entrepreneurs that help fund these innovations. More often, we don’t even notice. (Here I should point out that SpaceShipTwo had previously flown over fifty times. I, and likely many of you, had not followed more than a handful of those flights; I had to do some digging to find the total number.) When things go wrong, our reactions are much more varied, and often much louder. There are always, and always should be, questions raised. I applaud the work that is currently being done by the agencies investigating the crash, and know that this situation will become a case study in engineering classes in the years to come. These investigations began immediately after the crash, and will likely continue for many months, if not years, to come.
AnnMarie Thomas is an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. She has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Caltech, and an SB in Ocean Engineering from MIT. Follow her on Twitter @amptMN.
I am heartsick for the families and friends of the pilots, as well as for the engineers who are likely spending sleepless nights replaying the last five days in their heads. In addition to my sadness, I am angry. Why?
A few hours after the crash, I saw a tweet from WIRED with the words “Space tourism isn’t worth dying for,” and a link to a piece written by Adam Rogers. While it is likely that the phrase in the tweet wasn’t Rogers’ own words, the first sentence of his article declares that the death and injury were “in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.” TIME had its own day-of-the-crash headline and article: “Enough with Amateur-Hour Space Flight.” In it, author Jeffrey Kluger describes Richard Branson as being “driven by too much hubris… and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering.”
Let’s be clear here: SpaceShipTwo was not built by amateurs. Richard Branson didn’t build a space ship. If he did, with all due respect to him, I would strongly advise you not to ride in it, as Richard Branson is not an aerospace engineer. What Branson did was to hire one of the world’s most innovative and experienced aerospace companies to build the vehicle. Scaled Composites, the company that designed and was testing SpaceShipTwo, is over thirty years old. It was founded by Burt Rutan, designer of the Voyager aircraft, to design and test experimental aircraft. Since its founding, Scaled Composites has pushed the state of the art in both design and materials. It has over 200 highly skilled employees. Scaled Composites is a respected company, not one that just popped up overnight.
As someone who teaches engineering students, it has been impossible not to reflect on SpaceShipTwo this week. A colleague of mine, also an engineering professor, reminded me of the many advances in automotive engineering that came about because of attempts to break the land speed record. Those efforts were ones that involved many engineers, and also many of that era’s wealthy elite. Land speed record holders have come from families with backgrounds in diamond sales, fur trading, and other entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1904, William Vanderbilt, son of William Henry Vanderbilt and a millionaire himself, held the record at 92 miles per hour. At the time these attempts could easily have been dismissed as “thrill rides” by critics, but they also led to advances in tires, composites, and engine design.
In the piece that was posted on WIRED.com, the author repeatedly refers to the high cost of the tickets that have been sold for future flights on SpaceShipTwo, and that the pilots death “keeps rich people further away from weightlessness and a beautiful view.” I’d like to remind all of us that there are many examples of technology that was originally extremely expensive, and thus used initially by an admittedly wealthy subset of the population, that then became commonplace at multiple income levels. Consider, for a moment, the commercial airplane, computers, clean water and refrigeration— the technologies that I mention at the beginning of this article. There was a time when these were luxury items and some commentators couldn’t imagine that these would be available to the average person.
The cost of space and air travel research is high, and we are living in an era where NASA and NSF budgets for research are being slashed. As these budgets shrink, the role of private industry in researching and developing the technologies of the future is growing out of necessity. If someone has the money and interest to support such research and hires the highly skilled individuals capable of carrying out that research and testing, we may continue to see the kinds of exploration and discoveries once limited to massive government-sponsored efforts. Any of the “millionaire boondogglers” who bought advance SpaceShipTwo tickets were helping to fund the research that the Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composite teams are doing. Regardless of the goal of that research, even if it is “only” to develop new methods for short duration low altitude space flight, I would not be so naïve as to claim that there are no other possible uses for the technologies that will be developed in the process. As a follow-up article in WIRED made clear on Friday, there are myriad reasons why Virgin Galactic’s mission advanced science and technology.
This brings me back to the original article that caught my eye on this topic. What gives any of us the right to decide for others what is, or is not, worth dying for? Last year I, as a longtime sailor and Ocean Engineer, read WIRED’s coverage of the 2014 America’s Cup. This year’s race was undertaken by multi-million dollar boats that reached never-before seen speeds. At this size and speed, these boats could be labeled both state-of-the art and also deadly. Andrew Simpson, a highly skilled sailor, was killed in a crash during one of the training runs. In all of my reading of WIRED and WIRED.com at that time, I do not once recall coming across any coverage that declared yacht racing “not worth dying for.”
At the university where I work, our students are given the option of joining the “Order of the Engineer” at graduation. Think of it as analogous to the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. It ends with the phrase “In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.” I have yet to meet an engineer who works in aerospace, or any other field in which human lives are at stake, who doesn’t do honor to this phrase (whether they are a member of the order or not).
The deceased pilot, Michael Alsbury, worked at Scaled Composites for over a decade and was also the copilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in 2013. I have spoken to many test pilots, astronauts, and (undersea) submersible pilots. Never once have I met one who was not acutely aware of the risks inherent to their profession and had not made a well-considered choice to do this work.While Rogers acknowledges that the pilots and engineers working on the Virgin Galactic vehicles are doing amazing things, I can’t help but read his attack on the reason behind the company’s endeavor as an attack on them as well. If you ask any of the highly skilled and trained engineers and test pilots who worked on SpaceShipTwo or its predecessors what they work on, I sincerely doubt that any of them will tell you that they are working on a “millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.” For author Adam Rogers to imply that that is what they were working on and WIRED to tweet that “Space Tourism isn’t Worth Dying For,” mere hours after one of those colleagues perished strikes me as irresponsible sensationalism.
We should all be very cautious about deciding, for others, which endeavors are worth doing, or even dying for. What we should be concerned about is informed consent. The teams that undertake these endeavors must ensure that participants understand the risks, and should do everything in their power to protect those participants. Moreover, they must ensure people uninvolved with the project are kept safe. At this point it seems that the testing was done in such a way that the public was not at risk, and that the participants knew what they were taking on. I am sad for everyone involved in this tragic event. My thoughts are with them as they decide how to move forward. I also urge authors to focus first on the technology and data, rather than immediately casting aspersions on the people working to build new technologies.