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Saturday, 1 November 2014

Tragedy won't crush space tourism, supporters say

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The second crash this week of a space craft is a setback for the fledgling field of space tourism, aerospace experts say. But it's unlikely to stop an industry that has attracted a trio of ambitious, daring billionaires like Richard Branson, Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk from trying to open a pathway for ordinary citizens to travel into space.

VirginGalactic's SpaceShipTwo, which was designed to ultimately carry paying passengers into suborbital space, crashed Friday in the Mojave Desert during a test flight. The accident occurred three days after an Orbital Sciences rocket headed to the International Space Station exploded within seconds of liftoff in Virginia.

Pedro Llanos, who teaches about the commercialization of space at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University's Daytona Beach campus, said that space travel has suffered similar, sometimes deadly setbacks, in other stages of its evolution.

"It happened ... in the space era with the Apollo. It happened with the shuttle,'' he said. "The reason it happened in the past is because we were testing new technologies. It's happening now because we are pushing technology's boundaries, to move space exploration forward.''

Such exploration is critical, Llanos said, whether it's to create the possibility of mining asteroids for resources that are scarce on earth, or perfecting technology that will one day allow a person in California to travel to Australia within a couple of hours. "It will help us,'' he says. "It will help society.''

Now XCOR Aerospace, which has been developing its own suborbital vehicle, may get its paying passengers into space first, says John Spencer, founder and president of the West Los Angeles-based Space Tourism Society.

"It may be now that XCOR is first to go into a commercial setting because it will take a while for Virgin Galactic to catch up,'' he says.

"Virgin Galactic will eventually recover ... because of the extensive experience Branson and the Virgin brand has with one of the world's most successful airlines. Being first is cool but that doesn't really matter when you're creating a long-term vision for an expanding industry,'' Spencer said.

Among the hundreds who have paid tens of thousands of dollars for a ticket on one of Virgin Galactic's flights are actors Ashton Kutcher, Tom Hanks and Angelina Jolie. Spencer said those who want to go to space aren't easily dissuaded.

"One of the inherently unique aspects of space is it is dangerous but people are willing to risk their lives for that experience,'' Spencer said. "Just like climbing Mount Everest or sky diving.''

Source : USA TODAY