Per aspera ad astra is a Latin phrase variously translated as “Through hardships to the stars,” “A rough road leads to the stars,” or “To the stars through difficulties.” The last week of October certainly brought that phrase to my mind.
On Tuesday, October 28 Orbital Sciences Corporation attempted to launch their Cygnus cargo ship to the International Space Station on their Antares rocket—a rocket that uses forty year old Soviet-era engines and Ukranian fuel tanks, plumbing and sensors. Given that they’ve had an engine explode on a test stand, its failure and explosion less than twenty seconds into the flight is perhaps not a complete surprise. Thankfully, no one was injured in the accident.
More sadly, co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed and pilot Pete Siebold was serious injured when the Virgin Space Ship Enterprise, the first SpaceShipTwo, exploded shortly after release from its White Knight Two carrier ship, just after its hybrid motor was started. It was the first in-flight test of a new version of the hybrid motor, using a different fuel combination from previous flights. Although initial speculation was that the crash might have been due to a problem with the engine, the NTSB recently announced that the feathering system—part of the recovery and landing structure—had apparently malfunctioned.
As so many have said since these two accidents, rocket science is hard. And the loss of vehicles and people in the conquest of space is unfortunate, but it should not shock us or make us question the wisdom of spaceflight.
In the early years of aviation, loss of vehicles and loss of life were not uncommon. For instance, just days before Charles Lindbergh made his successful transatlantic flight from New York to Paris on May 20-21, 1927, Charles Nungesser and François Coli attempted to cross the Atlantic from Paris to New York in a Levasseur PL-8 biplane. They left Paris on the 8th of May, 1927 and were never heard from again.
I live in the Antelope Valley, just south of Edwards Air Force Base. If you’ve ever seen the movie or read the book, The Right Stuff, you know just how dangerous being a test pilot can be. The desert sands where SpaceShipTwo crashed are littered with the remains of dozens of aircraft that killed dozens of test pilots over the last fifty years.
Without the sacrifice of aviators from the Wright Brothers until now, modern air flight would never have happened. Thanks to all the test pilots, traveling by air is now the safest form of transportation ever developed by human beings. If you were to fly in a commercial jet every day of your life you would end up dying of old age, rather than from an accident.
Spaceflight is following a similar trajectory. The first attempt by the United States to launch a satellite into orbit was a spectacular failure—the rocket blew up only seconds after its engines fired. Between then and John Glenn’s flight four years later into orbit on top of an Atlas rocket, multiple test flights of the unmanned Atlas had ended in spectacular explosions.
The first person known to have died on a spaceflight was Vladimir Komarov when his Soyuz 1—the first flight of a Soyuz with a person onboard—crashed into the ground when its parachute failed to open properly. That was on April 27, 1967. On June 30, 1971 Georgi Dobrovolski, Viktor Patsayev, and Vladislav Volkov were killed in Soyuz 11: a cabin vent valve accidentally opened when the descent module separated from the service module during re-entry. They asphyxiated. They are the only people to have actually died in space (above 62 miles up).
Greg Jarvis, Christa McAuliffe, Ronald McNair, Ellison Onizuka, Judith Resnik, Michael J. Smith, and Dick Scobee died when the Space Shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds after lift-off on January 28, 1986. Rick D. Husband, William McCool, Michael P. Anderson, David M. Brown, Kalpana Chawla, Laurel B. Clark, and Ilan Ramon died when the Space Shuttle Columbia broke up during re-entry on February 1, 2003.
Michael J. Adams died during X-15 Flight 191 (a suborbital flight) when it went into a Mach 4.7 inverted dive and broke apart at about 65,000 feet on November 15, 1967.
Soviet Cosmonaut Valentin Bondarenko died on March 23, 1961. He was in training in a special low-pressure chamber with a pure oxygen atmosphere. He dropped an alcohol-soaked cloth onto an electric hotplate and fire quickly engulfed the chamber. Theodore Freeman (October 31, 1964) and Elliot See and Charles Bassett (February 28, 1966)were killed during training flights in T-38s. Gus Grissom, Edward White II, and Roger Chaffee were killed on the launch pad in Apollo 1 when a spark from defective wiring created a fire in their pure oxygen atmosphere. Clifton “C.C” Williams died on October 5, 1967 during a T-38 training accident. Robert Lawrence, named as the first African-American astronaut for the U.S. Air Force Manned Orbiting Laboratory program, died on December 8, 1967 when his F-104 jet crashed at Edwards Air Force Base. Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin (the first human to orbit the Earth) died in the crash of a MiG-15UTI jet trainer on March 27, 1968. Sergei Vozovikov drowned during water recover training in the Black Sea on July 11, 1993.
More than 110 people have died in rocket explosions during testing or attempted launches since the first satellite was fired into orbit in 1957.
Rocket science really is hard. And those who are involved in the process know and accept those risks and believe it is worthwhile. Consider: around 33,000 people die each year in automobile accidents in the U.S. 265 people died in aircraft accidents in 2013. Around 200 people die by drowning in their bathtubs annually. Life is risky—but we believe the benefits of cars, airplanes and bathtubs outweigh the risks. The benefits of space travel, likewise, outweigh the risks—and are worth the sacrifices.