IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Tragedy in the new space race

They all knew it would happen someday, but they probably didn't think it would happen so soon: For many of those who count themselves in the vanguard of the "personal spaceflight revolution," the three rocketeers who died Thursday in an explosion at Scaled Composites' rocket test site near Mojave, Calif., represent the first fatalities recorded in the service of that revolution.

Spaceflight pioneers have been saying for years that deaths were virtually certain to occur during the development of a new crop of privately funded spaceships. Most people thought the first deaths would come during the actual spaceflights, with test pilots and perhaps even passengers falling victim. But the history of rocketry shows that death strikes on the ground as well as in the air: Launch-pad disasters in the United States, the Soviet Union and Brazil easily come to mind.

Thursday's accident took place as Scaled Composites was testing components for the hybrid rocket engine that would be used on the next-generation rocket plane the company is building for Virgin Galactic.

The engine is designed to use a solid fuel and nitrous oxide. Nitrous oxide, which earned the nickname "laughing gas" when it was used as a recreational drug and an anesthetic, is considered a relatively safe, non-toxic oxidizer. It caused no problems during the development and flight testing of the SpaceShipOne rocket plane, climaxing in 2004 with the first private-sector spaceflights and the capture of the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

But something went wrong with the tanks of nitrous oxide being used to test SpaceShipTwo's motor - and the blast of pressurized gas went off like a bomb at Scaled Composites' remote test site. The dead included Charles Glen May, 45; Eric Blackwell, 38; and Todd Ivens, 33. Three others were injured, and two were still in critical condition Friday. (You can rely on Clark Lindsey's RLV and Space Transport News for updates.)

Family members said May had worked on SpaceShipOne, left the company, and returned to work at Scaled just this Monday. He left a wide trail on the Internet: Eulogies took note of May's rocket-bike experiments and his involvement with other pioneering rocket efforts.

Blackwell and Ivens will receive their own eulogies as well, in public or in private. My condolences and prayers go out to the families of the three who died, as well as to the injured and their families, and the extended families of Scaled employees and Mojave rocketeers.

What will this mean for the spaceflight revolution in general, and SpaceShipTwo in particular? In a first-impressions posting, rocket engineer Rand Simberg, the proprietor of Transterrestrial Musings, suspected that the accident could represent "a major setback" for Virgin Galactic.

In truth, it's hard to judge exactly how much of a setback it will be - because Scaled Composites founder Burt Rutan has been so reticent to talk about future schedules.

"We have for a year and a half here been not answering any questions at all about the program," he told journalists at a news conference Thursday.

The Los Angeles Times quoted Rutan as saying the accident would not change Scaled's insistence on secrecy. In the past, Virgin Galactic has hinted that SpaceShipTwo would be unveiled by the end of this year and would begin flight testing next year - but on Thursday, Rutan would say only that SpaceShipTwo "won't be unveiled until it's ready to fly."

Michael Belfiore, whose brand-new book "Rocketeers" focuses on Rutan and other private-space pioneers, told me that it's way too early to judge how much Thursday's explosion will set back Virgin Galactic's plans. And it's too early to judge whether this will take any steam out of the push toward suborbital space tourism.

"Since it wasn't actually in flight, it's hard to see it as a strike against space technology as a whole," Belfiore said. "It's tragic and very sad, but I don't know if it's going to have a chilling effect on the industry."

In comments to The Associated Press, X Prize founder Peter Diamandis took a similar tack. "This was an industrial accident. This has nothing to do with spaceflight," he was quoted as saying. "I have complete confidence that they are building a safe and robust spaceship."

On a technical level, Diamandis is totally correct: The accident is outside the jurisdiction of the Federal Aviation Administration, and is being handled as an occupational safety matter by Scaled, the Mojave Air and Space Port, and the state of California. But when you set aside the technicalities, the cause that brought Glen May, Eric Blackwell and Todd Ivens to Mojave has everything to do with spaceflight.

"Some of us think of space heroes as only those who strap themselves into a rocket ship," Rick Tumlinson, a co-founder of the Space Frontier Foundation and a space revolutionary if ever there was one, said in a statement issued today. "But people like these, who give their sweat and lives to build those ships, who take their families out to live in the desert and work incredible hours on tedious tasks to make those rockets fly, and who do so because they share the dream of an open frontier in space, they too are true heroes."

Amen. And Godspeed.

Update for 3:28 p.m. July 28: Late Friday, the members of the Personal Spaceflight Federation drew up this statement on Thursday's accident and its implications:


Regarding the Recent Incident in Mojave

"This is a sad day for the personal spaceflight industry.  Tragedy has struck our small community and our deepest sympathies and thoughts are with those involved and their families.

"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.  It is too early to comment on the specifics of yesterday's events, but we can state publicly our commitments going forward:

"As individuals and as an industry, we pledge that:

  • We will always be open and honest to the public and our customers about the risks of our activities and about any incidents that may occur.
  • If there is an incident, a proper and methodical investigation will be conducted to determine the cause.
  • We will apply the lessons of the investigation now underway and work to prevent this from happening again.
  • We will persevere - we believe that we can best honor those pioneers who were involved by carrying on their work.

"After the work and sacrifice of many, the space frontier is now being opened by private enterprise.  As leaders of companies and organizations who are engaged in this undertaking, we are committed to striving for the highest level of safety for the public, our customers and our employees.  We can do no less."

The statement was signed by Gary Hudson of AirLaunch; Stu Witt of Mojave Air and Space Port; Eric Anderson of Space Adventures; John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace; George French of Rocketplane-Kistler; David Gump of Transformational Space; Jim Benson of Benson Space Company; Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites; Alex Tai of Virgin Galactic; Robert Bigelow of Bigelow Aerospace; Mark Sirangelo of SpaceDev, Inc.; Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace; Art Dula of Excalibur Almaz; Kelly O'Donnell of Spaceport America; Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation; and Elon Musk of SpaceX.

Update for 4 p.m. ET July 29: The National Space Society sent out this statement about the Scaled Family Support Fund:

"As many of you have heard, there was a serious accident last week at Scaled Composites, Burt Rutan's pioneering company. Three lives were lost, including Charles 'Glen' May, an NSS member who was a leader within NSS's Huntsville HAL5 Chapter. In addition, three employees suffered serious injuries.

"Scaled has announced information on a fund for those wishing to support the families of the deceased as well as the injured and their families. The National Space Society urges all of its members to give generously to support these heroes.

"Please send contributions to Scaled Family Support Fund, c/o Scaled Composites, 1624 Flight Line, Mojave, CA. 93501.

Acct # 04157-66832Wire transfer ABA Routing #0260-0959-3 (Bank of America)

"Please make checks payable to the account number or to the name of the fund."

NSS Statement on Accident at Scaled Composites

"America was built on the courage of those who dared to explore new frontiers. From Lewis and Clark to the Apollo astronauts, great men and women have tested themselves against the frontiers of their age.

"In the course of their efforts, these heroes may pay the ultimate cost, as they did yesterday in Mojave. When that happens, it is the highest duty of all of us to care for the injured, to mourn the departed, and to care for the families. An honest investigation must be conducted to learn what went wrong, and to fix the cause so that it does not happen again.

"But when the investigation finished, our duty is to carry on the work of those heroes, to redouble our efforts to scale the peaks that they were climbing. That is what we learned from Apollo 1. That is what they would want.

"The frontier of space is far from tamed. The men and women of Scaled Composites are engaged in one of the great efforts of our time: opening space for all humanity. That is a noble pursuit, perhaps the most noble of all, and we must all be thankful for their work, and for their sacrifice.

"Let us not shirk from what happened yesterday. Professionals will find the cause. The program will continue. The effort to open space cannot be stopped. Now is the time to honor those men by honoring the cause that they were engaged in. Those of us who are part of this great endeavor, whether as participants or as supporters, let us carry forward this message of perseverance to our own communities, to our elected leaders and to the media. Now more than ever, the nation needs to hear your voices."