TIME space

Enough With Amateur Hour Space Flight

End of the line: Wreckage from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is shown in this still image captured from KNBC video footage from Mojave, California on Oct. 31, 2014.
End of the line: Wreckage from Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is shown in this still image captured from KNBC video footage from Mojave, California on Oct. 31, 2014. KNBC-TV/Reuters

A fatal accident in the Mojave Desert is a lesson in the perils of space hubris

It’s difficult not to feel sympathy for the hard-working people of Virgin Galactic—Sir Richard Branson’s private space tourism company—after the loss of their SpaceShipTwo vehicle in a crash in the Mojave Desert at a little after 10 a.m. PDT Friday. And it’s completely impossible not to hurt for the families of the two pilots involved in the accident—one of whom was killed and the other of whom suffered serious injuries, according to local police.

But it’s hard too not to be angry, even disgusted, with Branson himself. He is, as today’s tragedy shows, a man driven by too much hubris, too much hucksterism and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering. For the 21st century billionaire, space travel is what buying a professional sports team was for the rich boys of an earlier era: the biggest, coolest, most impressive toy imaginable. Amazon.com zillionaire Jeff Bezos has his own spacecraft company—because what can better qualify a man to build machines able to travel to space than selling books, TVs and lawn furniture online? Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft, has a space operation too because, well, spacecraft have computers and that’s sort of the same thing, right?

Branson, founder of Virgin Airlines, is at least in the business of flying aircraft, but the key part of that compound word is air. Space, as Branson surely knows, has none of that—and that changes the physics considerably.

A Virgin crash always seemed troublingly likely. And since it is the company’s whole purpose to carry passengers, it seemed equally likely to hurt or kill a lot of people too. I visited Branson’s self-styled spaceport in the Mojave last year to watch a brief test flight of his spacecraft. The mission that day was intended more as an air show than anything else—part of a pep rally for the hundreds of Virgin customers who would be attending to hear about the company’s progress. All of them had reserved a seat and paid a deposit toward their $200,000 ticket for a trip that—if it ever happened—would last just 15 minutes and ascend to just 62 miles (100 kilometers), which technically counts as being in space, but only to the extent that riding a jet ski off the beach in Ft. Lauderdale counts as going to sea.

But never mind, because the crowd seemed happy to be there and to take Branson’s word that they really, truly would get their chance to be astronauts. For the record, the demonstration flight they had come to see never took off due to high desert winds.

The Virgin crash comes just three days after the Oct. 28 explosion of an Antares rocket taking off from Wallops Island, Va., on an unmanned resupply mission to the International Space Station. That first part of a very bad week for the space industry was especially cautionary, because Orbital Sciences, the Virginia-based manufacturer of the rocket, is by no means a newcomer. It’s been in the business for more than three decades and has a very good track record of getting payloads—not passengers—off the ground and into orbit. Yet even it cannot control all of the lethal variables—technical, meteorological, human—that make space travel such a dicey game.

The practice of non-professionals insinuating themselves into the space business is not new. We have a launch facility at Cape Canaveral yet built a Mission Control center halfway across the country in Houston—the least efficient, most senseless arrangement imaginable—because then-Vice President Lyndon Johnson was the White House point man for the space program and he wanted his home state of Texas to get a bite of the big moon pie. Ex-Sen. Jake Garn and current Sen. Bill Nelson both elbowed their way aboard space shuttle flights since, unlike all of the other American kids who want to play spaceman, they were powerful figures in Congress and could loosen or tighten NASA’s purse strings at will.

Once NASA announced that after the shuttle program ended in 2011 it would be outsourcing the low Earth orbit portion of its portfolio to the private sector, it was inevitable that there would be a scramble of companies vying for those contracts—and that’s by no means all bad. In some respects, space has always been privatized: North American Aviation, Grumman Aerospace, Boeing and others have all been major NASA contractors, and they are hardly government-owned operations.

All, however, are deeply experienced in the business of aeronautical and astronautical design, too. Elon Musk, founder of the upstart SpaceX is, so far, defying doubters, with a string of both commercial launches and resupply missions to the ISS and no major disasters. But SpaceX is a rare bird—and still a young one—and it has a while to go before it establishes its true space cred.

It’s Branson, however, who has always been the most troubling of the cosmic cowboys—selling not just himself on his fever dreams but his trusting customers. One of those would-be astronauts I met in the Mojave that day was a teenage girl, whose parents had put aside enough money to buy her the singular experience of a trip to space. They beamed at her courage as we spoke, and seemed thrilled about the ride she was soon to take. Those plans, presumably, are being rethought today.

TIME space travel

Virgin Galactic Spaceship ‘SpaceShipTwo’ Crashes During Flight Test

One pilot was killed and another seriously injured

A Virgin Galactic spacecraft crashed in the California desert during a test flight Friday, the company said. The crash killed one test pilot and left another seriously injured.

Visibly shaken officials at a Friday press conference said that the surviving pilot is being treated at Antelope Valley Hospital and that little is known at this time about what caused the crash.

A witness told the Associated Press that SpaceShipTwo, which is carried aloft by a separate aircraft called WhiteKnightTwo, exploded shortly after detaching from its carrier craft and igniting its rockets. Virgin Galactic has been testing the aircraft, known as SpaceShipTwo, in the Southern California desert in hopes that it could one day be used to shuttle tourists to space.

Virgin Galactic recently changed SpaceShipTwo’s fuel mixture from a rubber-based solution to a plastic mix, but it’s unclear if that switch had anything to do with Friday’s explosion.

“We will work closely with relevant authorities to determine the cause of this accident and provide updates ASAP,” the company said in a tweet.

Officials from the Kern County Fire Department and the California Highway Patrol both responded to the incident, while local news helicopter footage of the scene showed debris clearly from SpaceShipTwo littering the test area. The National Transportation Safety Board said Friday it’s sending a “go-team” to investigate the incident.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson tweeted Friday afternoon that he’s flying to the scene of the crash immediately:

The SpaceShipTwo incident follows Tuesday’s loss of an unmanned Orbital Sciences Antares rocket shortly after liftoff from Virginia’s Wallops Flight Facility.

“It hasn’t been an easy week,” said Stuart Witt, CEO of the Mojave Air & Space Port, at a press conference Friday.It’s certainly been a challenge, but, where I’m from, this is where you find out your true character.”

TIME space

The Great Lakes—a Billion Miles From Earth

This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas.
This near-infrared, color mosaic from NASA's Cassini spacecraft shows the sun glinting off of Titan's north polar seas. NASA/JPL-Caltech/University of Arizona/University of Idaho

A new picture from the Cassini spacecraft reveals a dazzling vista on Saturn's moon Titan

Titan coulda’ been a contender. Saturn’s largest moon is a very distant, very cold place, -289º F (-179º C) worth of cold in fact. But even before the Cassini probe arrived in the Saturnian system in 2004, it was clear the giant world had unrealized potential. Its hydrocarbon atmosphere always suggested that had it been situated closer to the incubating warmth of the sun, it might have cooked up life. Indeed, astronomers long considered Titan a sort of flash-frozen version of the early Earth—back in the epoch when biology had yet to emerge but all of the ingredients for it were in place.

One other thing Titan was thought to share with Earth was the presence of oceans and lakes. The Titanian version would be filled with liquid methane and ethane instead of water, but the behavior of those bodies—freezing, evaporating, lapping up against shorelines—would be the same. When Cassini arrived, its radar scanners confirmed that these theories were true, and its infrared imagers have been returning better and better images of the lakes and seas—none so striking as the one above, just released by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), which oversees the mission.

The image shows the region around Titan’s north pole, with the sun—more than 900 million miles (1.4 billion km) distant at the time the picture was taken—glinting off the sea known as Kraken Mare. Clouds farther north of the site are likely refilling the sea with rain—the methane and ethane variety again. Close analysis by JPL researchers has also revealed what they call a bathtub ring around Kraken Mare, the residue left over when some of the contents of the sea evaporated, reducing its overall size.

The north pole is not the only region of Titan that is home to lakes and seas; the southern extremes of the moon have them too, but not nearly as many. This, investigators believe, is due to greater volcanic activity occurring in the north, leaving the region scarred with divots. These then served as the basins that became the seas.

Nobody is seriously expecting to find life in the Titanian depths—unless it’s a form of life that needs no liquid water and can somehow survive the punishing temperatures of the deep solar system. But nobody minimizes the value of the science that’s coming back from Cassini either. If nothing else, studying Titan reminds us of how precise the conditions must be for biology to exist on any world—and how lucky we are that those conditions were met here.

TIME space

Operator in Rocket Blast Hit Self-Destruct When Problem Became Clear

The Antares rocket exploded and scattered debris over a wide area

The unmanned rocket that exploded seconds after liftoff Tuesday on its way to the International Space Station did so because the operator hit self-destruct once problems with the launch became apparent, the company that owns it said.

The Antares rocket, operated by Orbital Sciences Corp., crashed in a large fire Tuesday night, scattering debris over a wide area. It was carrying more than 5,000 pounds of scientific instruments, food and other supplies for the astronauts aboard the space station when down with the rocket. NASA says the space station is equipped with plenty of food to last while additional resupply missions are organized.

Orbital spokesperson Barron Beneski told CNN the crash was initiated by the flight termination system. Such an order is typically given after it’s clear the rocket will not meet its intended trajectory in order to ensure that it goes down over a relatively small and unpopulated area. No injuries were reported in the crash.

The problem occurred in the first stage of launch, Orbital said late Thursday, in a possible sign that its vintage, Russian-designed engines could have been the cause.

[CNN]

TIME natural disaster

9 Photos of Molten Lava Destruction From Hawaii’s Kilauea Volcano

Lava flow from the Kilauea Volcano on Hawaii's Big Island flowed close enough to residents this week that officials warned of evacuations. See how the lava continues to creep closer to civilization and threaten the village of Pahoa

TIME space

Asteroid in a Bag? Bag it, Says MIT Space Scientist

Bad trip? Solar electric propulsion would help redirect an asteroid to lunar orbit
Bad trip? Solar electric propulsion would help redirect an asteroid to lunar orbit NASA

NASA's next great manned mission has always sounded like something of a fever dream. There may be a better way to do the same work.

MIT planetary scientist Richard Binzel calls himself an “asteroid guy.” He’s been studying the rocky planetoids for decades now, so you might think he’d be thrilled with NASA’s plan to snag a very small asteroid in a very large bag and tow it into lunar orbit for astronauts to visit.

In fact, he’s anything but. At a talk last summer, Binzel called the Asteroid Return Mission (or ARM) “the emperor with no clothes, or at best with very thin cloth.” And now he’s written a commentary in the latest issue of Nature laying out his objections in greater detail, but also proposing an alternative. Instead of bringing one of the solar system’s uncounted asteroids to us, he says, we should send astronauts to visit them in a program that could ultimately lead to the goal people have been looking toward since the Space Age began: sending astronauts to Mars.

“In fairness,” Binzel says, “NASA doesn’t really know what to do with its hardware.” That’s never a good thing. Back in 2010, President Obama officially killed the plan to send astronauts back to the Moon and began pushing instead for a visit to an asteroid by 2025. “NASA took that as a mandate,” says Binzel. When they realized they couldn’t pull it off by then with the available budget, he says, they came up with ARM, which quickly became known as “Asteroid in a Bag”—a term that suggests the space community didn’t exactly take it seriously.

But asteroids are whizzing by Earth all the time, and we don’t know about most of them. “The ones we’ve detected so far,” says Binzel, “aren’t the tip of the iceberg. They’re the snowflake on the tip of iceberg.” An asteroid a few miles across can cause the sort of planetwide catastrophe that played a big part in ending the dinosaurs’ dominance of the Earth. And even a smallish one, like the 60-foot rock that fell near Chelyabinsk, Russia last year (and which Binzel helped investigate) can do plenty of damage.

The first part of Binzel’s proposed three-part program, therefore, is to mount an exhaustive telescopic search for Near-Earth Asteroids, or NEO’s, ten meters (33 ft.) across or bigger. He estimates there are about ten million of them—so many, he says, that “at least one passes by as close as the Moon every week (NASA is searching for them already, but there are still plenty of rocks going undetected).

ID’ing the NEO’s that pose a threat is a good thing on its own merits, but these are also the ones that would be easiest for astronauts to visit. The idea, says Binzel: spot a likely candidate as it approaches the Earth and send astronauts out to match its orbit—something like the way relay runners start sprinting before their partner arrives so they’re going at the same speed at the point of baton handoff. “They’d go out and greet it,” he says, “and follow alongside for a few days.” Then the astronauts would peel off and circle back to Earth.

While hanging out with the asteroid, astronauts could do all sorts of exploration. They couldn’t land themselves, because a small asteroid has too little gravity to keep a human from floating off, but they could use robotic landers to beam back all sorts of information, bring samples back for study in Earthly labs, and even prospect for minerals. Astronauts could also test deflection technologies that could someday be used to push a killer asteroid off course to keep Earth safe.

Best of all, says Binzel, a series of asteroid missions of longer and longer durations means you don’t have to jump to Mars all at once without practicing long-distance and long-duration spaceflight first. NASA can flex its exploratory muscles bit by bit, preparing for that ultimate leap. The image he keeps returning to is that of the Gateway Arch, in St. Louis—the great portal to America’s West. When Lewis and Clark returned with their maps of the vast spaces of still untouched mountains and prairies, says Binzel, who has a painting of the adventurers in his MIT office, “it triggered an enormous wave of exploration. Imagine,” he says, “that we knew of a thousand or even thousands of objects that were readily accessible to human spaceflight.” Retrieval gets you one object; a survey will find thousands at a fraction of the cost. What’s not to like?

Read next: Watch This Pilot’s Dramatic Midair Video of the Antares Rocket Explosion

TIME movies

Watch an Exclusive Interstellar Clip With Matthew McConaughey

Cooper faces some dubious realities in this exclusive first look at Christopher Nolan's space epic Interstellar

Of all of the conspiracy loonies currently at large — birthers, truthers and grassy-knollers, we’re looking at you — there are none quite as febrile as the folks who claim the Apollo moon landings were faked. The theory (with apologies to the word “theory”) presumes that all of the 400,000 people directly or indirectly involved in the moon landings schemed in perfect secrecy to pull off the greatest scam in history, and have maintained their silence for more than two generations since the lunar program ended in 1972. It would be easier just to go to the flipping moon.

But what’s preposterous in real life plays for poignant drama in the new film Interstellar — set sometime in the vaguely defined future, when Earth is slowly being suffocated by an unnamed blight and luxuries like space travel are out of the question. To keep people’s minds off the great things humanity once did so they can better accept their sadly reduced state, the U.S. government itself adopts the Apollo hoax story, writing it into all federally approved textbooks. In a movie in which so much takes place in the trackless expanse of space, one of the most affecting scenes plays out in a principal’s office, where a grounded astronaut (Matthew McConaughey) is being told that his daughter has gotten into trouble for spreading the purported lie that yes, in a different age, human boots indeed left prints on another world.

TIME space

See an Astronaut’s Minimalist Photo of a Sunrise

Sunrise seen from the International Space Station
Reid Wiseman—NASA/EPA

Ever wondered what sunrise looks like from space?

Following the explosion of the Antares rocket, Astronaut Reid Wiseman shot this picture of the sunrise, captured from the International Space Station (ISS).

“Not every day is easy,” Wiseman wrote. “Today was a tough one.”

He was referring to the failure of the Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares rocket and Cygnus spacecraft, moments after launch at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. The Cygnus spacecraft was filled with about 5,000 pounds of supplies slated for the ISS, including science experiments, hardware, spare parts and crew provisions. The station crew is in no danger of running out of food or other critical supplies, NASA said.

TIME #TheBrief

#TheBrief: Ebola Quarantines Get Political

While the federal government works to contain Ebola in the U.S., states are taking matters into their own hands—and butting heads with the White House and the CDC in the process.

The attempt to contain the spread of Ebola in the United States is becoming political, with governors imposing varying, stringent, and sometimes unclear quarantine rules that are hard to enforce across state lines.

President Barack Obama spoke out against these policies Wednesday, saying, “We don’t want to discourage our health care workers from going to the front lines. They are doing God’s work over there, and they are doing it to keep us safe.”

Here’s your brief on the science and politics of Ebola.

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