Tragedy has struck space tourism a most cruel blow. First, the 31 October crash of SpaceShipTwo took the life of test pilot Mike Alsbury. Then, images of the in-flight break-up cast a calamitous cloud over the ­industry’s biggest and most important player – the ­Virgin Galactic/Scaled Composites team.

Virgin Galactic crash

Credit: Rex Features

Since 2004, the teaming of Richard Branson’s financial prowess and branding swagger with Burt Rutan’s legendary aerospace design and engineering house has dominated the embryonic space tourism industry. ­Although it was harder and more expensive than either originally conceived, SpaceShipTwo still seemed the favourite in the race to private suborbital spaceflight.

The full impact of the accident on the future of space tourism is impossible to predict. The US National Transportation Safety Board investigation will last several months, and probe deeply into the competency and culture of the SpaceShipTwo design and test team.

Meanwhile, the future of the Virgin Galactic venture is also difficult to foresee. Branson faces a structural problem and a still-unproven rocket motor, and now he has lost his only flight test vehicle. Rival space tourism outfits may have less access to financial and technical resources, but they do not lack for worthy ideas. XCOR Aerospace, for example, seems poised to launch flight tests of the Lynx spaceplane next year. More recent entrants, such as Tucson-based World View Experience, are aiming lower, promising balloon rides to 100,000ft.

Space tourism is a fickle market by nature. Unlike air transport, it does not yet service commerce. There is a good reason why only seven private citizens have become astronauts since 2001. That is because they have large sums of money, paying more than a ­combined $200 ­million for eight voyages to the International Space Station.

Yet, here lies the industry’s best hope. The human yearning to escape the grip of Earth’s gravity runs deep, even if only for a suborbital hop over a somewhat arbitrary line dividing atmosphere from space.

Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipTwo and many other remarkable aircraft, had a mantra for his employees: a job was only worth doing as long as it was fun. That spirit guided Scaled Composites to circumnavigate the Earth with Voyager in the 1980s and reach the fringe of space with SpaceShipOne in 2004.

The loss of SpaceShipTwo poses the ultimate risk to space tourism. It might be a long time before the idea is fun again.

Source: Flight International