SpaceShipTwo crash: Handley still wants to fly

Derek Handley says he still wants to fly on Virgin Galactic, despite Saturday's SpaceShipTwo crash that killed one of two test pilots, and badly injured the other after he ejected.

The Kiwi entrepreneur is one of more than 637 people who have pre-booked $US250,000 tickets a sub-orbital flight with Sir Richard Branson's space tourism start-up (giving it advance revenue of around $US160 million; more than $US470 million has reportedly been invested in the venture so far).

Handley didn't respond directly to NBR, but a rep sent the statement:

I'm incredibly sad and devastated for the entire Virgin Galactic family.

I take heart from the spiritual weight and encouragement of every great civilisation in history behind us, from the Egyptians to the Greeks, marvelling at our collective dream of making space accessible to all.

Pushing the limits of our earth, skies and atmosphere for mankind has never been safe nor smooth, but has always been necessary. It's a bitter truth that brave heroes must risk their own futures to unlock new frontiers for ours.

My plans remain as they always have been: to become one of the first civilian astronauts of the human race.

Derek Handley,
Astronaut-in-Waiting

In the section of his LinkedIn profile detailing his space-faring plans the HyperFactory co-founder, Snakk Media chairman AUT University adjunct professor and Sky TV director adds, "Yes. I am scared."

A second Kiwi booked on Virgin Galactic, Mark Rocket, did not immediately respond to NBR's query. 

In the Herald, the RocketLabs co-founder (who changed his name by deed poll), called the crash a "major setback" but did not say if he would alter his plans.

He had been contacted by Virgin Galactic and asked not to comment publicly.

The cause of the SpaceShipTwo crash has yet to be determined. It was the first time the craft has used a new plastics-based fuel. 

Virgin Galactic had originally planned to begin commercial flights in August this year. Sir Richard says he want to push on with the venture. He tweeted over the weekend, "Space is hard - but worth it. We will persevere and move forward together."

Will other passengers keep the faith?
Handley has a lot of moxie, and is close to Sir Richard (he was the founding CEO of Branson's philanthropic outfit The B Team).

Others booked to fly on the first Virgin Galactic flights include Paris Hilton, Katy Perry, Leonardo DiCaprio, Angelina Jolie and Justin Bieber. NBR wonders if they are as likely to keep the faith.

Certainly, the SpaceShipTwo tragedy was a grim reminder that going into space is a dangerous business.

By one tally, 18 people have died during launch or training incidents. That list does not include Virgin Galactic's first fatal incident, in 2007, which claimed the lives of three mechanics when the propellant system of a SpaceShipTwo craft exploded on the ground during a flow test.

Out of his hands
Whatever Sir Richard Branson's personal passion to push on, Virgin Galactic now faces regulatory complications.

The Economist reports the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, intended to encourage private space vehicles and services, prohibits the transportation secretary (and thereby the the Federal Aviation Administration) from regulating the design or operation of private spacecraft — unless they have resulted in a serious or fatal injury to crew or passengers, which of course has now happened. That means that the FAA could suspend Virgin Galactic’s licence to fly, or insist on vetting private manned spacecraft as thoroughly as it does commercial aircraft.

There will also be practical delays as the cause of SpaceShipTwo accident is determined, and its sister craft is finished (as of July, it was half built).

Long term plans
If all the challenges are evenually worked through, Sir Richard has big plans.

SpaceShipTwo's maximum altitude was 110km.

That's technically sub-orbital (the International Space Station orbits between 330km and 435km). But it's high enough to see the curvature of the earth, and enjoy four minutes of weightlessness during the 2.5 hour trip.

And, long term, Virgin Galactic could be more about faster international air travel than conquering the stars.

Sir Richard says it could be used to fly from Sydney to London in 2.5 hours.

Passengers have to go through three days of training, including a whirl around a centrifuge to check if they ability to handle G-force (after climbing to 50,000 feet hitched to a carrier aircraft, Space ShipTwo decouples and accelerates to the speed of sound in 10 seconds, and three times the speed of sound within 30 seconds). 

ckeall@nbr.co.nz

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