Nov 05, 2014

    Spacecraft crashes recall aviation's early days

    ONE clear winter day in 1909, in Hampshire, England, a young man named Geoffrey de Havilland took off in a twin-propeller motorised flying machine of his own design. The launch was flawless. But he soon realised he was in terrible trouble.

    The angle of ascent was unsustainable, and moments later de Havilland's experimental plane crashed, breaking apart into a mass of shards, splinters and torn fabric, lethal detritus that could easily have killed him even if the impact of smashing into the ground did not.

    Somehow, he survived and Sir Geoffrey - he was ultimately knighted as one of the world's great aviation pioneers - went on to build an astonishing array of military and civilian aircraft, including the world's first jet airliner, the de Havilland Comet.

    I thought immediately of de Havilland on Friday when I heard that Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, a rocket-powered vehicle designed to take well-heeled tourists to the edge of space, had crashed on a flight over the Mojave Desert, killing one test pilot and seriously injuring the other.

    The in-air "anomaly", as it was first described in a company Twitter posting, comes on top of an explosion in 2007 during a rocket-fuel test that killed three employees on the ground at the Mojave Air and Space Port.

    These sacrifices were not just tragic; to many people, there was something needless or even obscene about them. Brave men are dead in service of a for-profit venture in which a bunch of thrill-seeking billionaires and Hollywood A-listers have plunked down deposits up to the full US$250,000 (S$322,000) cost for a ticket to slip the surly bonds for several minutes of floating weightlessness and trophy photography 100km above the Earth, at the very edge of our atmosphere.

    But whether or not Friday's crash was preventable, it was far from pointless. It is worth considering that, to a striking degree, the criticism of "space tourism" today echoes the scoffing of a century ago that greeted the arrival of powered flight.

    Certainly, the Wright brothers and others like de Havilland were involved in what we now view as an epic quest, but many experts of the day were certain that flight was destined to be not much more than a rich man's hobby with no practical value.

    In recent years, I have interviewed a wide array of people involved in the private space industry, including both pilots involved in the crash on Friday. Almost universally, they viewed themselves as pioneers at the dawn of an era of exploration whose apogee is beyond our generation's imagination.

    But, they insist, we certainly need to go there. "I think it is actually very important that we start making progress in extending life beyond Earth and we start making our own existence a multi-planetary one," Elon Musk, the founder of SpaceX (its goal: "enabling people to live on other planets") once told me.

    He called the venture a "giant insurance policy" for the survival of our species. Seen in this light, the first round of space tourism is simply seed capital for something much grander.

    One could argue, of course, that space tourism is more grandiose than grand. And as a general matter, we are less excited about the possibilities of space exploration than we were a half-century ago. But if we are ever to reach Mars, or colonise an asteroid or find new minerals in outer space, today's work will prove to have been a vital link in the chain.

    There will be tragedies like the crash of SpaceShipTwo and non-lethal setbacks such as the fiery explosion, also last week, of a remote-controlled rocket intended for a resupply mission to the International Space Station.

    There will be debates about how to improve regulation without stifling innovation. Some will say private industry cannot do the job - though it is not as if the Nasa-sponsored Apollo or space shuttle missions went off without a hitch.

    But at the heart of the enterprise, there will always be obsessives like Sir Geoffrey, who forged ahead with his life's work of building airplanes despite his own crash and, incredibly, the deaths of two of his three sons while piloting de Havilland aircraft.

    Getting to routine safety aloft claimed many lives along the way and 100 years from now, people will agree that in that regard, at least, spaceships are no different from airplanes.