Frank Sinatra’s version of ‘Fly Me to the Moon’ has been one of my all time favourite songs. This song was released in 1964 along with the Apollo program. The connection of his song to real life struck to me when I heard of the tragic crash of Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo that killed one pilot and injured another, during a test. This hasn’t exactly given a good start to what we could say, an innovative idea, also perceived as crazy by some. It has provided a setback to commercial space travel plans, which in itself has many countering views. Virgin Galactic and its partner Scaled Composites announced the idea of space travel in 2007. Sir Richard Branson had said in 2008 that the maiden space voyage would take place in 18 months, which kept getting delayed due to some mishap or the other. The 31st October incident has invited a lot of criticism to the company amid claims that the spaceship which intended to take six passengers at a time, at a cost of $250,000 each, was being rushed into service too soon.
One point of view is that this particular failure needs to be seen in proper context and should not be used to kill space tourism programmes. Space travel has been a grand idea from the beginning, a distant dream. However, the same was true for commercial air travel decades ago. Space travel is highly technical, with numerous risks, but so was air travel in the previous century. We would have been nowhere if the idea of commercial air travel was shunned on account of the various risks involved. Virgin’s Galactic has the potential to be a huge success, if implemented correctly and at the right time. Also, people are showing a lot of interest in exploring the space, as is seen by the huge number of advance bookings on the proposed first commercial space flight.
The other is that, these fatal accidents have triggered doubts about the viability of commercial space travel. Sir Richard Branson, has described this as a horrible moment for space travel. This does provide a reality check to entrepreneurs who have been promoting this dream. It has, so far, relied on hype and marketing glitz. There is little evidence to prove it’s safety. One could say that glitz has helped sell tickets in advance. The International Association of Advancement of Space Safety has warned companies and regulators about risks, which have been ignored so far. The investigations into the crash could run for over a year, which will slow down the pace at which firms hope to start service. All of this, therefore, makes it unlikely that commercial space travel will happen in the foreseeable future.
However, my take is that such type of innovations should continue. If it isn’t for these ideas, most of the things we have now wouldn’t be there. Failure and risks are just a part of it. The Wright brothers, most famously known for their invention of an aeroplane that could be controlled in air, were experimenters, who never feared failure. There was a lot of uncertainty and repeated failed attempts before they could finally succeed. Sir Richard Branson’s idea of space tourism has certainly experienced a setback, though this particular failure shouldn’t affect it in any way. Technology is just advancing more and more. Therefore, we should move forward, rather that backward.
I hope that I am able to relive the lines that Frank Sinatra so beautifully sung,
Fly me to the moon
Let me play among the stars
Let me see what spring is like
On Jupiter and Mars
Note: The following article has been previously published on The Indian Economist and can be accessed at: