January 28 to February 3 has been a tough week for NASA and the United States public. On January 27, 1967, the Apollo I capsule caught fire during a pre-flight test, killing astronauts Edward White, Virgil (Gus) Grissom, and Roger Chaffee. On January 28, 1986, the space shuttle Challenger exploded 73 seconds into flight, killing all seven crew aboard. On February 1, 2003, the space shuttle Columbia burned up on reentry, claiming another seven NASA astronauts.
The fact that three fatal aerospace accidents occurred within the space of a week but in different years is obviously a coincidence. But it isn't necessarily a meaningless coincidence. Last week, a press release from the Space Frontier Foundation (SFF) revealed that the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-CST) is concerned about the potential consequences of the loss of a private "space tourism" flight. FAA-CST is the federal office that regulates private space vehicles and spaceports in the United States; SFF is an organization that advocates for the human settlement of space.
If the passengers and crew of a space-tourism flight suffered the same fate as the lost NASA astronauts, would the public turn away from the entire industry, like air travelers after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001? Would Congress ground the entire industry for a years-long investigation, the way the space shuttle fleet was grounded?
As I discussed in earlier blog posts on January 12 and January 25, space-tourism entrepreneurs promise their customers the Moon and the stars. It's an exciting time — the birth of an entirely new aerospace industry.
It's also time to be honest about one thing: Rocketing to the top of Earth's gravity well — even for a couple of hours — is dangerous. Let's hope it doesn't take a disaster to bring the industry down to Earth.