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Deadly day for space tourism -- but future 'rests' on such days, official says

updated 9:42 PM EDT, Fri October 31, 2014
  • Pioneering new frontiers is fraught with peril from the aviation age to space age
  • "Our future rests in many ways on hard days like this," spacecraft executive says
  • "We are human and it hurts," aerospace valley chief says
  • Pioneers seek to create new industry taking people into weightlessness of space

Los Angeles (CNN) -- With the same peril that the Wright Brothers faced in becoming the first men to fly planes, mankind's quest for space tourism is also fraught with deadly trial and error.

Like those bold aviators of more than a century ago, today's pioneers seeking commercial space travel were reminded Friday of how they must accept the risk -- and reality -- that lives will be lost entering this potential new frontier.

Such a tragedy occurred Friday morning in California's Mojave Desert, which in many ways has long been the Kitty Hawk for test pilots and their jets and, more recently, for tourist spacecraft.

In what the pioneering firm Virgin Galactic called a "serious anomaly," its experimental SpaceShipTwo failed and fell from the sky.

One pilot died and another was injured, authorities said. Both pilots worked for Scaled Composites, a partner in the Virgin Galactic project.

A future built on accidents

As in the aviation age, the space age must advance on such deadly experiments as Friday's accident, said George Whitesides, CEO of Virgin Galactic.

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"Space is hard, and today was a tough day," Whitesides told reporters, extending sympathies to the pilots' families.

"Our future rests in many ways on hard days like this, but we believe we owe it to the folks who were flying these vehicles as well as the folks who have been working so hard on them to understand this and move forward," Whitesides added.

SpaceShipTwo is one of a handful of private ventures seeking to take ordinary earthlings -- ordinary, at least in that they live on Earth, but are also wealthy enough to afford a ticket that some say could initially cost as much as $250,000 -- into the edges of outer space so that they could feel the same weightlessness that astronauts experience in the cosmos.

The spacecraft's accident holds a measure of notoriety because its high-profile sponsor is one of the world's most swashbuckling figures, Sir Richard Branson, who in prior interviews acknowledged how pilots must risk harm when testing spacecraft for tourism.

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A new space race

"People risk a lot to get space off the ground in the first place," Branson told CNN. "Unless you risk something, the world stays still."

Branson is an adventurist known for taking big risks and the entrepreneur behind Virgin Airlines. He has said that his Virgin Galactic firm "has been the roughest company I've had to launch."

"I think it's the start of a new space race," Branson said in a recent interview. "It's not been easy."

It wasn't any easier, either, for the pioneers of the aviation age who also chanced danger in getting crude planes off the ground and in the subsequent development of bigger and better planes.

For example, Wilbur and Orville Wright went to lengths to avoid the in-flight problems that killed German aviation pioneer Otto Lilienthal and English experimenter Percy Pilcher, who were killed separately in glider crashes in the 1890s.

'We are human and it hurts'

Friday's accident wasn't the first deadly incident related to Branson's SpaceShipTwo project. In 2007, three people were killed in a ground explosion at a rocket test pad operated by Scaled Composites, a firm testing components for Branson's venture. That accident also occurred in the Mojave Desert, at the Mojave Air and Space Port in Mojave, California.

Those deaths and one on Friday weigh heavily on everyone working in the desert's "aerospace valley," some 100 miles north of downtown Los Angeles, said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air and Space Port.

"When we have a mishap in the test community, we find the test community is very small, and we are human and it hurts," Witt said.

The peril is intrinsic to humanity's trailblazing, according to Bob Weiss, the president of the XPrize, a group that advances innovation and sponsors competitions for lunar exploration and other quests.

"I think people need to understand that this was not only about starting a business, but they were pioneering a whole new aspect of human endeavor," Weiss said. "The commercialization of space flight involves taking what is something that is at its root inherently risky and finding a safe, operational way to do it."

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'Stay the course'

Inevitably, the biggest question arises: Is it worth it?

For Weiss, establishing commercial space travel could be a small step toward more people living and working in space.

"The one thing that's consistent that you hear from every single person that's gone to space is they report that trip -- being able to look down at the Earth -- has forever change the way they think about themselves, the planet and their future, the so-called overview effect.

"This was about bringing that experience to more and more people and then ultimately doing it a price where not just hundreds of people can afford it but many thousands of people," Weiss said.

Friday's death unsettled the scores of workers who fill the parking lots of the Mojave's commercial aerospace valley, and it may be upsetting to the world's millennial generation whose era may likely be defined by the advent of space tourism, if the pioneers are successful.

Witt, the chief of Mojave Air and Space Port, delivered a message of solace to those workers and that next generation.

"My message to them is to stay the course," Witt said. "This is not easy. If it were easy, it would not be interesting to me and any of my colleague with us.

"We're doing this for you and your generation," Witt added. "It's a cause far greater than any of us singularly."

Space tourism will be realized when test flights show it's safe for families, said Virgin Galactic's Branson.

"I'm not going to take my son into space until I'm obviously sure we've got everything right, and the team won't let me either," he said.

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