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Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn added, "Clearly, in the context of what's happened, given the personal tragedies, this is of course a setback."
New Mexico Spaceport Authority Chairwoman Kelly O'Donnell expressed a similar sentiment: "I would characterize [Mojave] as a tragedy, but I would not, at this point, characterize it as a setback either for commercial space or for Spaceport America."
X Prize founder Peter Diamandis took a similar tack. "This was an industrial accident. This has nothing to do with spaceflight. I have complete confidence that they are building a safe and robust spaceship."
At Mojave airport, $40,000 went to an independent consultant to investigate the airport's procedures. Scaled composite is conducting its own inquiry. The National Space Society statement put a fine point on it: "Let us not shirk from what happened yesterday. Professionals will find the cause. The program will continue."
Meanwhile, when costs go up on the private space side, they work around it. Bigelow Aerospace, another private space company in the midst of assembling an orbital hotel, has decided to skip a step in its scheduled sequence of test modules as "inflation, previously artificially low launch costs and the falling value of the U.S. dollar" have forced its hand. The company uses Russian rockets for now, which has become an increasingly expensive proposition. Rather than just ask for more appropriations and plod ahead, Bigelow will consign a series of tests to a terrestrial hangar, then send up the next module.
Bigelow has also long made it clear that when good orbital space ships become available, the company will be a good customer. Its willingness and ability to be fickle with suppliers might be the key to its success. NASA suffers from being locked into certain suppliers and techniques (like the troublesome foam insulation), as contracts are often determined more by congressional politics than by what's needed for a particular mission, or what might be cheaper in the long run.
And then there are the attitudes of the engineers and astronauts themselves: NASA astronauts accept risk in a way that is comparable to the risk taken by soldiers and Marines in Iraq. They have volunteered, they know what they're getting into, and they're facing it bravely. But they're doing it on someone else's terms. Decisions are made with big things like national interest, congressional appropriations, and national glory in mind.
The people who died in the Scaled Composites explosion, and everyone who works in the fledgling private space industry took on similar risks, but in a more personal, direct way. They made the choice to go in on a small company in its early days, one that might never get off the ground (so to speak) at all. The risks they take are physical, but they are also financial, professional, and personal. The Personal Spaceflight Federation touched on this theme in their statement: "We are engaged in a demanding endeavor - opening the space frontier. It is not easy, but it is a goal worthy of our highest efforts. We are aware of the risks and every day we take the highest precautions." After pledging openness, honesty, and a thorough investigation into what went wrong, they've also promised to "persevere—we believe that we can best honor those pioneers who were involved by carrying on their work."
One of the dead, Glen May, also had a rocket biking hobby, "He would work on his rocket motors, strap them to the bike, don his helmet and heat suit and attempt to zoom down the flight line. After a fizzle or two, he was successful in rocketing his bike in front of his admiring Scaled audience." Risk is in the blood of entrepreneurs and spacemen, perhaps doubly so in the blood of those who opt for employment in the still-young private space industry. The perennial gale of creative destruction will overwhelm the weaker companies. But the stronger, safer, most efficient ones will emerge.
Katherine Mangu-Ward is an associate editor for reason.