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Spaceship Down

7 Nov 2014

SpaceShip Two in the Mohave Desert

Arkyd 3 (height 12")

November 7, 2014
SpaceShip Down

Media pundits have tried to characterize last week's space tragedies as a one-two punch to the civilian space program. In reality they were two very different events. Neither will be long lasting, but the recoveries will be quite different. Let's start with the manned mission of Virgin Galactic, which justifiably received the bulk of the attention, and then work back to the Antares explosion, which was unmanned and different in many other ways.

Virgin's first spaceship intended to transport groups of people, SpaceShip Two, crashed after "anomalies" yet to be disclosed to the general public. It was a blow because Virgin founder Richard Branson hoped the craft would be fully tested and licensed in the near future; he was prepared to ride on it with his family. One assumes that plan is on hold.

The media has incorrectly chracterized it as costing $500 million; the entire program, which includes design and construction of a second spaceship already well underway, is included in the deal. Nonetheless it is a huge amount of money, recalling the time of early world sea voyages many centuries ago, obscenely profitable and yet so prone to failure due to weather that the insurance industry was invented to deal with it. But Branson has had setbacks before and is determined to move forward. He still hopes to be in space before the end of next year.

The asteroid minining mission of Planetary Resources prefers a different route using robotic technology. That does not make them smarter than Branson since Virgin's business model of space touristry clearly cannot go that way, but it does give them options not otherwise available, such as alternative choices of launch vehicles. Planety's strategy is to create swarms of networked modules that explore together and later mine together. Each module would be simple, relatively cheap, and easily replaced. With the explosion of the Antarest rocke this approach has been tested sooner than expected.

Planetary's first module headed for space, Arkyd 3, was a test payload under 15 kilograms basically a mobile space telescope without the telescope. Arkyd 3 was part of the payload destroyed in the Antares explosion last Tuesday. The supplies headed to the Internation Space Station copped the media attention. It's probably more of a setback for Planetary than ISS because it was it's first space payload, but the setback is on a totally different scale from what Branson is facing. The Arkyd is relatively cheap to build and the drawing board already had more coming.

Each company is revolutionary in its own way. Someday soon, with Virgin's help, people will be able to fly into space as tourists, helping popularize and pay for the space future to come. Not long after that, with Planetary's help, people should be able to rent and remote-control their own Arkyd space probes, around and away from Earth to the asteroids of their choice.

You may also like this related article: John Glenn, My First Hero (181)
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