Saturday, November 1, 2014

Dear Vultures: Go Away, Nothing To See Here

Yesterday's crash of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle in California's Mojave Desert is a painful blow to the spaceflight community, especially to those supporting the fledgling commercial space and space tourism industries. It's always more tragic when lives are lost, including Michael Alsbury, one of the SpaceShipTwo pilots.

                                    Michael Alsbury, 39, perished in the crash

At this time, the primary focus should be on the pilot's family and on the surviving pilot's needs. Pretty much everything else can wait, including publicizing the second pilot's name and condition. Yes, I've actually seen the mainstream press and social media rip into Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composites for being "slow to disclose" all the details on the pilots and so far nothing on the cause of the crash.

Maybe this apparent entitlement to being in the loop is a holdover from the days when NASA was the only space-faring outfit in the land. The government agency really had no choice but to deal with the public. As a result, NASA is an expert at responsive public relations, holding news conferences, sharing information and generally keeping reporters and the public in the know. Private companies, by contrast, have no such obligation to share their business, their successes and failures with the press or the general public. In reality, of course, they do, since they'd hardly thrive otherwise. That does not give Mr and Ms Reporter the right to call into question Virgin Galactic's general competence because the company called a press conference in the middle of the Mojave Desert during a rainstorm and then dared to withhold the pilots' names.

The initial Virgin Galactic / Scaled Composites press conference after the crash was telling. Unlike NASA officials under similar circumstances, it was clear that those finding themselves in the spotlight didn't plan on being on TV that day, shaken, pressed to explain their company's first failure to a global audience. VG and SC reps seemed devastated during that press conference. It really doesn't help if all reporters and editors do is kick them when they're down and write articles about everything else they think is wrong with Virgin Galactic, or why the entire space tourism and commercial space industry is doomed for all time.

But then again, I'm not sure the mainstream press wants to help. From Time to National Geographic to Wired, writers and editors are proclaiming this the end of space tourism, the end of all of commercial space, and the end of billionaires daring to develop revolutionary technologies that benefit only the rich, initially. 

I'm not linking to these articles on purpose. Spaceflight naysayers are bad enough at the best of times. When it comes to covering the Virgin Galactic story, they are acting like nothing so much as a pack of starved vultures on a 3-day-old carcass. I needed hip boots just to read that stuff and brain bleach afterwards.

SpaceShipTwo disintegrating over the Mojave Desert on October 31, 2014

We're not exactly talking about well-thought out scientific or engineering arguments here. There are those who gleefully deliver "I told you so!"s for a 1,000 words only to reveal opposition to Virgin Galactic rooted in a personal dislike for billionaires finding ways to sell leisure trips to the edge of space to the wealthy elite. That's too bad, Mr Reporter, it's not your money. Go forth and make a few billion dollars from scratch like Richard Branson did, and maybe then you have something useful, or - think about it! -  supportive to say about a pioneering entrepreneur. But I doubt it.

Then there are those in the mainstream media peanut gallery who are offering up various - equally unhelpful and unsupportive - versions of "It's just too dangerous!", "This has always been a bad idea!" and "What is wrong with you people? Going into space is frivolous, dangerous and serves no purpose!" 

I've seen and heard this so many times in so many different incarnations that I haven't a facepalm left. Maybe those who think going into space serves no purpose have descendants that will agree, otherwise they'll find themselves obstructionists of their children's future. I've frequently come up against this seemingly irreconcilable divide: Those committed to our human future in space and those adamant that we must stay right here on Earth, where we belong.

While the latter choice is one that endangers survival of the human species in the long run
, in the here and now it is also an argument that is downright Luddite at its anti-technology core. It is a resistance to developing tech that will unlock whole new ways for human beings to live, thrive and form communities, even as some of us die to make these advances accessible not just to a wealthy elite, but to everybody. There is precedent in human history. Opposition to technology and science out of fear or misinformation is not uncommon. The calls I'm seeing in the mainstream media to end the dangerous madness of space tourism reminds me of those denizens of the 19th century who vocally opposed railroad technology because they believed that it wasn't possible for people to survive traveling at speeds over 30 mph. They were insistent. They were obnoxious. And they were dead wrong.

To me the path is clear. Commercial space and space tourism will recover from failure. We will pick up the pieces, literally, and move forward. It is what we do as a species, it is how we learn and evolve. Most of all, I firmly believe that moving onward, forward and upward is a crucial way to honor the lives of those who have died - and who will die - as they refine the technologies that will make humans a true space-faring species.

Thank you, Michael Alsbury for your courage and for your sacrifice. They will not be forgotten and they will not be in vain ~

Ad Astra!


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