Coming to terms with a privatized universe


Richard Shu, Staff Columnist

Virgin Galactic, a division of Virgin Group aimed at providing commercial flights to space, recently saw its test craft catastrophically fail when the craft broke up and crashed mid-flight, killing one of the test pilots. Dubbed “SpaceShip Two,” the craft was Virgin’s latest attempt at a commercially viable spacecraft that would eventually carry tourists, scientists and cargo outside of Earth’s atmosphere.

The crash presented a significant obstacle for Virgin Galactic’s development. So far, there are only speculations of what caused the crash. Over 20  prospective customers canceled their reservations out of fear for their safety. Media coverage has placed a great deal of skepticism on the bourgeoning space tourism program.

The crash, it must be said, is not out of the ordinary. Experimental spacecrafts have always been fraught with problems. But the growing distrust in Virgin Galactic could easily spiral into a wider vindication of private space tourism. It feels strange to put the future of space exploration in the hands of a private corporation — particularly one that specializes in travel services and telecommunications — and a crash from a promising prototype could easily serve as a rallying point.

For a long time, to go into space was a high achievement that anyone could strive for. Any child could become an astronaut if he or she worked hard enough, did well in school and remained disciplined and inquisitive. Space was the domain of the triumphant, the skilled and the hard-working. With this new frontier of extraterrestrial tourism, we can write a check and go to space. It is slowly becoming just another luxury vacation destination.

But this is the fate of any technology. What was once looked at in awe becomes mundane and accessible. The commodification of space, however perturbing, is a natural consequence of the technological cycle within capitalism. We have already been to the moon. That powerful image of an astronaut silhouetted by earthrise has already been taken. We have planted the flags and the reflectors. The glamorous moments have already happened. All that is left is for space to become exploited and sold.

Virgin Galactic’s corporate status means they are incentivized to make profit, possibly at the expense of safety. There will need to be regulation in order to assure that the business of spaceflight remains proper. As the level of scrutiny heightens in the wake of the crash, these regulations become increasingly likely. But as we watch the magnates and tycoons take off in their rockets, we will never regain the sense of optimism and wonder that accompanied space travel. It is not the domain of the astronaut anymore. This is the future, and nothing is sacred.

A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday, Nov. 12 print edition.  Email Richard Shu at [email protected]