DURHAM, N.C. — After two high-profile commercial space accidents in less than a week, advocates of private space ventures told attendees of a student space conference that, while saddened by the failures, they were still confident about the future of the overall industry.

“It is a time of reflection for us all,” former NASA Deputy Administrator Lori Garver said in a speech here Nov. 1 during SpaceVision 2014, the annual conference of Students for the Exploration and Development of Space (SEDS).

Garver was referring to the Oct. 28 failure of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares launch vehicle that destroyed a Cygnus cargo spacecraft bound for the international space station, and the Oct. 31 crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane during a test flight, killing one pilot and injuring the other.

Garver, who noted she was speaking at a space conference for the first time since leaving NASA in September 2013 to become general manager of the Air Line Pilots Association, said she did not expect the failures to lessen the resolve of the agency to rely on the private sector for ISS cargo and crew transportation. “After all, right now it is your choice if you want to take humans to space: Are you going to double down and invest in good old U.S. private enterprise, or are you going to send the money to Russia?” she said. No member of Congress, she argued, would publicly support funding Russia. “We have a program that is sustainable throughout what are going to be some difficult days ahead,” she said.

James Muncy, founder and principal of space policy consulting company PoliSpace, said the recent accidents, while unfortunate, demonstrated that companies were at least attempting to develop new vehicles and spacecraft, versus designs that never got off the drawing board.

“It has not been the greatest week in the world in America’s space endeavors,” he said in a Nov. 1 conference presentation. “But in some ways, it’s a useful illustration of the difference between adversity and impossibility.”

The conference, organized by the University of North Carolina SEDS chapter, was already underway when the SpaceShipTwo accident took place on the afternoon of Oct. 31. The conference continued uninterrupted despite the accident, although some speakers changed the topics of their presentation on short notice.

Rick Tumlinson, chairman of the board of space resources company Deep Space Industries and a longtime advocate of commercial space ventures, said he learned about the accident when he arrived at the conference that afternoon, and brought it up in a previously scheduled speech at the end of the day. “We had a heart-to-heart talk about it,” he said in a Nov. 1 interview.

Tumlinson said he was relieved about the initial response in the media to the accident, but that the commercial space industry will need to work harder to demonstrate its commitment to safety. “The thing to do is to acknowledge the challenges we’re facing and make sure we’re doing everything possible to mitigate those challenges using the best technologies, the best systems, and the best approaches,” he said. “Let’s not make the same mistakes that led to things like Challenger.”

The SpaceShipTwo accident, Tumlinson said, may provide a stronger argument for calling private human spaceflight something other than “space tourism.” That term, widely used both within the industry and among the general public, makes the experience sound safer than it is likely to be for years to come, he said.

“When it’s a completely passive, 99 percent safe experience, maybe you can call someone a tourist,” he said. “Not somebody who is putting their life on the line to have the most heightened experience of their life.”

Twitter: @jeff_foust

EmailL jfoust@spacenews.com


NTSB Begins SpaceShipTwo Investigation as Pilot Identified

Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established spacetoday.net to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...