I had forgotten until I was searching for my past posts about this that I had written in 2007: How to Make Space Tourists Nervous. The late pilot is not the first person to die in Branson's project:
Three people have been killed in an explosion, during a test of rocket systems to be used in Richard Branson's proposed space tourism ventures.I remain of the view that this is a vanity project that is not worth the effort.
If tourists want to see the edge of space, a high altitude balloon would surely be a safer way of achieving it (see the first link above). And a "vomit comet" can give a good enough sensation of weightlessness.
Update: seems to me it is starting to look like this fatality may indeed kill off Virgin Galactic. The British press is full of bad PR:
Update 2: David Walker at Club Troppo has a rather good post about the problem of getting into space. (Very, very rarely does science of this kind get a run there, but it sure beats the chess posts!)Sir Richard Branson's space tourism company Virgin Galactic has been accused of ignoring a series of warnings that its $500 million rocket was unsafe for flight.A number of senior aerospace engineers repeatedly voiced fears over the design of Sir Richard’s SpaceShipTwo and the safety protocols surrounding its testing.The Telegraph has seen emails and other documents in the public domain — dating back several years, and as recently as last year — in which the engineers warned of the dangers of Virgin Galactic’s rocket engine system.It also emerged on Saturday that three senior Virgin Galactic executives — the vice-president in charge of propulsion, the vice-president in charge of safety, and the chief aerodynamics engineer — had all quit the company in recent months.
Update 3: apart from the rocket engines, the thing about the Virgin rocket that I always thought looked ridiculously dangerous was the "feathering" wing. (See how it moves on this video.) As a design, my common sense suggested that this looked like an accident waiting to happen, and I was expecting that this would be the cause of the first crash. But I have never noticed any expert make this comment, so what do I know? (Apart from the fact that I wouldn't fly in it.)
Update 4: Oh look, maybe my common sense was not far off the mark after all:
In September 2011, the safety of SpaceShipTwo's feathered reentry system was tested when the crew briefly lost control of the craft during a gliding test flight. Control was reestablished after the spaceplane entered its feathered configuration, and it landed safely after a 7-minute flight.I don't recall hearing about that at the time.
Update 5: cynicism from earlier this year on the poor performance of Spaceship Two.
Update 6: I am reminded by this accident that Burt Rutan was the designer of SpaceShipTwo, and although he is now retired, he is notable for being a climate change denier. He writes:
Specifically, the theory of CAGW is not supported by any of the climate data and none of the predictions of IPCC since their first report in 1991 have been supported by measured data. The scare is merely a computer modeled theory that has been flawed from the beginning, and in spite of its failure to predict, many of the climate scientists cling to it.My rule of thumb for trusting experts in any field still applies: if they don't believe in CO2 causing potentially dangerous climate change, be very careful of what they say or do on any topic.