Space, the final frontier

Who hasn’t looked up to the heavens with awe and wonder? It isn’t just the vastness of space that inspires such feelings; it is the mystery about what is “out there” and the logical certainty — and emotionally terrifying probability — that humankind is not alone in the universe.

There is too the extraordinary “pull” of space, captured best by poet and pilot John Gillespie Magee Jr., who “slipped the surly bonds of Earth.” Who has not dreamed of that same passage, literally and actually floating across the sky?

Richard Branson launched Virgin Galactic to make that dream a reality, to promote space tourism for ordinary citizens (or at least those with hefty bank accounts). Founded in 2004, Virgin Galactic was established “to transform access to outer space.” The development of a reusable vehicle to access outer space was the centerpiece of this vision.

It would alter the economics of space flight, making it much more affordable to put individuals or equipment, including satellites, in orbit.

As part of this program, space would be made available on the vehicle for individuals who wish to slip those surly bonds — at least for a few minutes — as well.

Thus far, more than 700 people have paid the $750,000 needed to reserve a seat on Virgin Galactic, a number that already exceeds the number of people who have ever gone into space — 546 as of Oct. 31, 2014.

Branson originally promised to have his customers in space by 2007. That date was pushed back to 2008, and by 2010, space tourism was just 18 months away. In 2012, the wait had been reduced to one year, but most recently, the end of 2014 had become the target launch date.

Any arrangements planners and passengers were making have been delayed again, with the crash of SpaceShipTwo vehicle in the Mojave Desert last week. That accident killed one of the pilots and severely injured the other.

That tragedy was not the only setback for space travel last month. On Oct. 28, an unmanned rocket carrying supplies to the International Space Station (ISS) exploded seconds into its flight. Orbital Sciences, the company behind that launch, had concluded its first successful trip to the space station (using its own rocket and delivery vehicle) earlier this year; a second successful mission followed in July.

The October accident involved Orbital Sciences’ third flight with the same equipment.

Both accidents raised questions anew about the safety of civilian space travel and the acceptability of the risks involved. Orbital Sciences has a long track record of success, and another private company, the California-based SpaceX, established by upstart entrepreneur Elon Musk, has flown four missions with its own rocket and capsule to resupply the ISS. Other private companies have long played critical roles in the official U.S. space program.

The record of government space flight is not unblemished, either: Fourteen astronauts lost their lives as a result of accidents on the space shuttle, and three Apollo astronauts were killed in the early days of the United States’ effort to put a man on the moon.

Virgin Galactic has said that safety is its first priority; getting paying customers into space as soon as possible is a distant second. The U.S. government is not taking that assertion on faith alone. In the aftermath of the SpaceShipTwo accident, federal agencies will now take a closer look at the space ventures. The key regulator is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

Virgin Galactic submitted an application to offer space travel for civilians in late August 2013, and it is still under review.

The chief problem is that it is not clear what standards should be used to assess the safety of the project. Governments want to make sure that companies do not exploit over-eager customers; at the same time, they want to encourage the growth of the private space industry.

The U.S. is the first government to confront these challenges, but others are likely to follow. Space technology is proliferating and a growing number of entrepreneurs are ready to back space ventures — a potentially lucrative business, even if only focused on government contracts. The ready supply of eager tourists creates a demand all of its own.

One solution has been state-supported tourism: Moscow put seven tourists into space when they shelled out the tens of millions of dollars that bought them a seat on Soyuz missions.

Ultimately there is no escaping the risks involved in space travel: There are just too many variables and the margins of error too large.

The allure of outer space — even if just for the 5 minutes of weightlessness during a 15-minute flight — is too strong. Reportedly less than 3 percent of Virgin Galactic customers have asked for a refund in the wake of this crash. Given the many, irreducible uncertainties, the guiding principle for space tourism is likely to be “informed consent.”

That seems like a pallid and easily surmounted hurdle when juxtaposed against the perennial dream of humankind to transcend gravity itself.