What The New Yorker Gets Wrong About the SpaceShipTwo Accident

SpaceShipTwo debris in storage. (Credit: NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Psychologists have identified five stages of grief: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are clearly on display in Virgin Galactic’s Rocket Man, Nicholas Schmidle’s profile of Mark Stucky in The New Yorker. A substantial part of the story chronicles how the test pilot dealt with the death of his close friend, Mike Alsbury, in the breakup of SpaceShipTwo Enterprise during the vehicle’s fourth powered flight four years ago.

It’s a touching portrait of Stucky’s grief for his fellow Scaled Composites pilot, with whom he had flown while testing the suborbital spacecraft being developed for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic. (Stucky later moved over to Virgin, which took over the SpaceShipTwo program after the accident, to test the second SpaceShipTwo, Unity.)

However, Schmidle tells only half the story in his otherwise insightful profile. He places nearly all the blame on Alsbury, while ignoring the findings of a nine-month federal investigation that identified systemic flaws in the development program and the government’s oversight that contributed to the accident.

It’s similar to the flawed, self-serving narrative that Branson used in his latest autobiography, “Finding My Virginity,” complete with a not-entirely-fair jab at the press coverage of the crash. The billionaire uses pilot error to obscure a decade of fatal mistakes and miscalculations.
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XPRIZE Appoints Anousheh Ansari as New CEO

Anousheh Ansari

LOS ANGELES, October 18, 2018 (XPRIZE PR) — XPRIZE, the world’s leader in designing and operating incentive competitions to solve humanity’s grand challenges, announced at their annual Visioneering event today that Anousheh Ansari has been named as chief executive officer. Dr. Peter H. Diamandis will continue in the role of founder and executive chairman.

Ansari, a serial tech entrepreneur and astronaut, is an active proponent of world-changing technologies. No stranger to XPRIZE, Ansari, along with her family, sponsored the organization’s first competition, the Ansari XPRIZE, a $10 million competition that ignited a new era for commercial spaceflight. Since then, she has served on XPRIZE’s Board of Directors and has closely worked with the foundation. Ansari was asked by Diamandis, and the rest of the board, to help lead the foundation as it extends its reach and impact.

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The Future Just Ain’t What It Used To Be: Space Tourism Edition

White Knight taxis with SpaceShipOne on June 21, 2004. (Credit: John Criswick)

On this date in 2004, Mike Melvill lit the candle on SpaceShipOne as soared into history as the first astronaut to fly a privately-built spacecraft to space.

Fourteen years. It seems like only a lifetime ago.

I was on the flight line that day (I’m the guy with the video camera) not far from where I write this today.  The excitement and optimism of that day — that feeling that a new era of spaceflight would soon be upon us — was palpable. The future was within our grasp.

The last 14 years have been a lot like the movie, “Groundhog Day.” Not in the sense of the same day being repeated endlessly, but the same old promises being made over and over. And still, space tourism remains just out of our grasp.

What went wrong? It’s a question I’ve pondered as I’ve watched the setbacks and the tragedies unfold here in Mojave. The answer is complex, but in its simplest form it can be summed up as follows:

Although SpaceShipOne winning the Ansari X Prize was an enormously inspiring event, it produced immature and poorly understood technology and bred a dangerous overconfidence in its builders that contributed to two fatal accidents. Government oversight regulations ignored safety lessons learned in decades of human spaceflight.

There are no shortcuts in this business. And the moment you think you’ve got it all figured out is when you need to be most on guard. These are lessons we seem doomed to learn anew over and over again.

As I said, the truth is more complicated. Below are some stories I’ve written over the years exploring what went wrong.

Stories

Finding My Virginity Book Review (Jan. 8-10, 2018)

A Niche in Time Series (Sept. 25 – Oct. 3, 2017)

Google Lunar X Prize is Back — Without Google & Without a Prize

The moon rising over Half Moon Bay. (Credit: Douglas Messier)

LOS ANGELES, April 5, 2018 (XPRIZE PR) — Today, XPRIZE announced their plan to continue the Lunar XPRIZE mission, with a re-launch of a new Lunar-focused competition.

Effective today, the Lunar XPRIZE will operate as a non-cash competition. Over the next few months, XPRIZE will define new parameters for companies to compete in the prize.

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Planetary Resources Hits Bump in the Road

Arkyd-6 spacecraft (Credit: Planetary Resources)

Alan Boyle at GeekWire reports that asteroid mining company Planetary Resources has been forced to make some cutbacks.

A spokeswoman for Planetary Resources, Stacey Tearne, told GeekWire that financial challenges have forced the company to focus on leveraging the Arkyd-6 mission for near-term revenue — apparently by selling imagery and data.

“Planetary Resources missed a fundraising milestone,” Tearne explained in an email. “The company remains committed to utilizing the resources from space to further explore space, but is focusing on near-term revenue streams by maximizing the opportunity of having a spacecraft in orbit.”

Tearne said no further information was available, and did not address questions about employment cutbacks. However, reports from other sources in the space community suggest there have been notable job reductions. For what it’s worth, Planetary Resources had more than 70 employees at last report.

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The GLXP is Dead! Long Live the GLXP!

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

This past week, the XPrize acknowledged the obvious:  after 10 years and multiple deadline extensions, none of the five remaining teams was going to claim the Google Lunar X Prize by landing a privately-built vehicle on the moon that would travel 500 meters across the surface while sending back high-definition video.

The first team to accomplish that goal would have claimed $20 million; the second, $5 million. But, unlike the moon race of the 1960’s, Google’s much hyped moon shot ended not with the deafening roar of a launch but the deadening silence of a dream deferred.

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X Prize Admits What Everyone Already Knew: Google Lunar Prize is Kaput

CULVER CITY, Calif. (X Prize PR) — “After close consultation with our five finalist Google Lunar XPRIZE teams over the past several months, we have concluded that no team will make a launch attempt to reach the Moon by the March 31st, 2018 deadline. This literal “moonshot” is hard, and while we did expect a winner by now, due to the difficulties of fundraising, technical and regulatory challenges, the grand prize of the $30M Google Lunar XPRIZE will go unclaimed.

We are extraordinarily grateful to Google for enabling this 10-year journey with us and for having the foresight and courage to support and catalyze the commercial space industry, which was the ultimate goal of this competition.

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Planetary Resources Guy Says: Space Resources Will Save Us All

Video Caption: You care about the future of our planet. You traded in your gas-guzzling SUV for a Prius and your Keurig for a Coffee Maker — and if enough of us do that, we’ll save the Earth, right? Well, we are dangerously close to collapsing our own ecosystem and we are running out of time.

In this persuasive talk, James Orsulak argues that the only way to really make a difference is to look up. James Orsulak serves as the Director of Business Development at Planetary Resources, an asteroid mining company that has embarked on the world’s first commercial deep space exploration. The company focuses on technologies such as rocket propellant, water for life support functions, and construction materials sourced from asteroids.

Previously, James spent a decade developing industrial-scale fueling stations on Earth. He is an avid gardener who lives in Denver with his amazing wife, 2-year-old twins and a rambunctious Goldendoodle named Waffles. This talk was given at a TEDx event using the TED conference format but independently organized by a local community.

Editor’s Note: Found out about this video from a Tweet by Peter Diamandis, who founded Planetary Resources. He praised the talk by one of his employees.

But, the whole thing is confusing. Peter’s been running around promoting his book Abundance, which posits that things are getting better all the time and that the exponential technologies that lie at the heart of the Singularity University he co-founded are making life better for all. His whole position is one of techno-optimism bordering on techno-euphoria.

Yet, this talk posits that Earth and humanity itself is doomed without asteroid mining. What if it doesn’t turn out to be the panacea that they claim it to be? What if it’s not profitable enough to ensure the investment required? Are we all still doomed?

 

A Niche in Time: One Chute

SpaceShipTwo after being released for its final flight on March 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic/NTSB)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Pete Siebold and Mike Alsbury heard the sound of hooks disengaging and felt a sharp jolt as SpaceShipTwo was released from its WhiteKnightTwo mother ship. Relieved of a giant weight, WhiteKnightTwo shot upward as the spacecraft plunged toward the desert floor.

“Fire,” Siebold said as the shadow of one of WhiteKnightTwo’s wings passed across the cabin.

“Arm,” Alsbury responded. “Fire.”

The pilots were pushed back into their seats as SpaceShipTwo’s nylon-nitrous oxide hybrid engine ignited behind them, sending the ship soaring skyward on a pillar of flames.

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Will Trump Follow Through & Disrupt the Disrupters?

good vibrations cover2a
Part 2 of an occasional series on entrepreneurial buzz words

In light of the election, I’m republishing this story from July on disruption and the Donald Trump campaign. It remains to be seen to what degree the president elect follows through on his many promises to remake the American economy.

Silicon Valley Lingo: Donald Trump Disrupts the Disrupters
July 25, 2016

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Recently, 145 Silicon Valley tech executives wrote an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for president. In the letter, they basically declared the billionaire to be a threat to America’s very future.

We believe in an inclusive country that fosters opportunity, creativity and a level playing field. Donald Trump does not. He campaigns on anger, bigotry, fear of new ideas and new people, and a fundamental belief that America is weak and in decline. We have listened to Donald Trump over the past year and we have concluded: Trump would be a disaster for innovation. His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy—and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth.

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Future Imperfect: The Ansari XPrize, SpaceShipOne & Private Spaceflight

how_make_spaceship_coverHow to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight
by Julian Guthrie
Penguin Press, 2016
Hardcover, 448 pages
ISBN 978-1-59420-672-6
US $28/Canada $37

Reviewed by Douglas Messier

On Sept. 8, I arrived home at about half past noon to find a package sitting on my doorstep. It was a review copy of a new book by Julian Guthrie about the Ansari XPrize and SpaceShipOne titled, How to Make a Spaceship: A Band of Renegades, An Epic Race, and the Birth of Private Spaceflight.

I laughed. The timing was perfect. Ken Brown and I had just spent five hours in the desert — most of them in the rising heat of a late summer day — waiting for WhiteKnightTwo to take off carrying SpaceShipTwo VSS Unity on its first captive carry test flight.

It was the first flight in nearly two years of a SpaceShipTwo vehicle since Unity’s sister ship, VSS Enterprise, had broken up during a Halloween test flight, killing co-pilot Mike Alsbury. Ken and I had been there on that day, too.

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Silicon Valley Lingo: Donald Trump Disrupts the Disrupters

good vibrations cover2a
Part 2 of an occasional series on entrepreneurial buzz words

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

Recently, 145 Silicon Valley tech executives wrote an open letter opposing the candidacy of Donald J. Trump for president. In the letter, they basically declared the billionaire to be a threat to America’s very future.

We believe in an inclusive country that fosters opportunity, creativity and a level playing field. Donald Trump does not. He campaigns on anger, bigotry, fear of new ideas and new people, and a fundamental belief that America is weak and in decline. We have listened to Donald Trump over the past year and we have concluded: Trump would be a disaster for innovation. His vision stands against the open exchange of ideas, free movement of people, and productive engagement with the outside world that is critical to our economy—and that provide the foundation for innovation and growth.

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Space & Politics Collide in GOP Convention

Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)
Donald Trump (Credit: Michael Vadon)

The Republican Convention starts on Monday, and the event is already stirring up some controversy. (Donald Trump? Controversy? Nooo….how could that be?)

Former NASA astronaut Eileen Collins, who became the first woman to command a space shuttle before the space agency retired the ones it had left to museums, is scheduled to speak during the convention at which delegates are schedule to nominate Trump for President.

There’s a move a foot to free the delegates to vote for another candidate, an effort that doesn’t seem likely to succeed, but is almost sure to cause violence if it did.

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Entrepreneurial Lingo Lesson: The Pivot

twist_chubby1_disrupt copy
First in an irregular series on entrepreneurial buzz words

Come on let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

Do you remember when,
ROI was really hummin’,
Yeaaaah, let’s pivot again,
Pivotin’ time is here!

Heeee, and round and round til IPO we go!
Oh, baby, make those investors love us so!

Let’s pivot again,
Like we did last quarter!
Yeaaah, let’s pivot again,
Like we did last year!

There comes a time in the existence of many startups when there an urgent need to change direction. You set up the company to pursue a goal, but for one reason or several — a lack of a market, shortage of investment, regulatory hurdles, a flawed concept — you have to direct all that talent, technology and enthusiasm toward a new objective that will keep the company in operation.

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