Sumpter, who died in February after a brief illness, was a commanding presence. A mechanical engineer who had spent 16 years at White Sands flight testing missile systems, he knew whereof he spoke. Still, a 46 percent failure rate was scarcely a comforting thought in view of the question on some people’s minds, namely: What if this had been a manned flight?
The crash of the UPA rocket was a cautionary tale. It is wrong to think that rocket flight is like aircraft flight, only a little higher and a little faster. Unlike atmospheric aircraft, a spacefaring rocket undergoes extremes of acceleration and deceleration, plus vibration and buffeting, reentry heat, and other space-specific influences. All these factors combine to make spaceflight a classic case of “sensitive dependence upon initial conditions,” meaning that the smallest mechanical, software, or other imperfection—such as the brittle O-ring that doomed Challenger —can have momentous outcomes.
Such a defect was catastrophic to UPA’s SpaceLoft XL-1 and to most of its scientific payloads. The University of Colorado’s electronics package had been reduced to a charred, deformed, and melted husk. Central Connecticut State University’s package, broken into pieces, had returned no data. Alison and Lydia’s analog watches, despite having been carefully encased in bubble wrap, had stopped at 2:17. The digital watch was defunct, its face blank.
In January 2007, the company announced that the crash had been caused by a defective tailfin assembly, which engineers have since redesigned. And there was a silver lining: Worldwide coverage of the first launch had produced so much publicity that UPA’s next two flights were fully booked.
UP Aerospace will not make or break the New Mexico spaceport; Virgin Galactic will do that. But in the aftermath of the UPA crash, some of the major players in space tourism were taking a second look at how the crash (or a series of crashes) of a manned private rocket, plus a raft of huge liability claims, would affect the industry. Last October, some of the high priests of space tourism met in Las Cruces for the International Symposium for Personal Spaceflight. NewScientist.com, which covered the meeting, reported a few of their comments:
“Space is risky, and safety will be one of the defining factors in the development of space tourism for the first few years,” said Eric Anderson, president and CEO of Space Adventures, the Arlington, Virginia firm that has arranged five visits to the International Space Station for wealthy clients, including the latest, Charles Simonyi, the creator of Microsoft Word.
“No matter how much energy we put into safety, there is a chance of an accident,” said Alex Tai, chief operating officer of Virgin Galactic.
“What happens if someone in the industry crashes and burns? It could affect everyone,” said Kirby Ikin, of Asia Pacific Aerospace Consultants.
Even Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin, the second man on the moon, said that he would decline the offer of a private rocket flight. “I don’t need that publicity anymore and I don’t need that risk.”
And who could blame him? Accidents have eliminated not only individual aircraft types—such as the de Havilland Comet, three of which broke up in the air between May 1953 and April 1954—but entire modes of transportation. The Hindenberg disaster of 1937 ended travel by Zeppelin, and the crash of the Concorde in 2000 effectively terminated journeys by supersonic transport. The up-and-down flight planned by Virgin Galactic—a voyage from nowhere to nowhere and back again—does not even have the advantage of being a mode of transportation: It is, merely, entertainment. That may be the saving grace.