11/04/2014 10:31 am ET Updated Jan 04, 2015

SpaceShipTwo: Much More Than Just a Roller Coaster for the Rich

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Friday's tragedy in the stratosphere above the Mojave Spaceport in California, and the previous week's dramatic unmanned rocket explosion at NASA's Wallops Island launch facility in Virginia, are stark, related reminders that getting to space is hard.

If getting to space were routine, if it were as easy as, say, boarding a transcontinental flight is today, then we'd have the colonies on the Moon and mining crews on asteroids and geologic field trips to Mars that I imagined, in my youth, would be ubiquitous by now. But it's not easy; it is hard. In fact, it's unnatural; why fight the strong gravity field of our home world and leave its nurturing atmospheric cocoon just to get to any number of other nearby or faraway hostile, unforgiving environments in which we clearly do not belong? Why do we have to go? Can't we just send robots?

Everyone who has ever had even an ounce of curiosity or the merest inkling of wonder knows the answer: We have to go; we have to explore. We are compelled, as a species, and as individuals, to act upon a manifest destiny that we begin to feel in our bones at a very young age. And if we can't personally push the boundaries of human experiences and environments ourselves, then we can at least follow along, vicariously, with those who do. We call those folks explorers, and heroes.

One of them is Michael Alsbury, the co-pilot who lost his life when Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke up shortly after its engine ignited on Friday. Another is pilot Peter Siebold, who survived but is still recovering from critical injuries. Both pilots worked for Scaled Composites, the company that built SpaceShipOne, winner of the Ansari X-Prize in 2004, and is designing and building SpaceShipTwo for Sir Richard Branson's nascent "spaceline" at Virgin.

Some, like correspondent Adam Rogers, don't appear to believe that Alsbury's death was a noble one, a life given in the service of exploration, pioneering, and human advancement. "Virgin Galactic is building the world's most expensive roller coaster, the aerospace version of Beluga caviar," he wrote recently in, adding, "That pilot died not for space but for a luxury service provider." I couldn't disagree more.

I can imagine similar sentiments from correspondents in the early 20th century, commenting on the latest crash of some crazy flying contraption. What was the purpose, all this loss of life and property just to keep thrill-seeking rich guys (and gals) happy? Did Amelia Earhart not give her life for aviation just because some of her efforts ultimately helped line the pockets of sponsors like Beech-Nut Chewing Gum? Early aviators like her were daring and skilled end-users in a massive push for technology innovation that would, eventually, convert air travel from a luxury service for the rich to the "routine" transportation option that it is today for the middle class. Virgin Galactic, and other so-called "NewSpace" companies that are also pushing the limits of access to space, are doing exactly the same thing, and in the decades ahead, today's efforts and the sacrifices by pilots like Alsbury and Siebold and their families will be vindicated as pioneering and enabling.

But that's not all. Rogers' characterization of Virgin's motives is incomplete and unfair. A significant part of their business model extends beyond tourism and into science. Realizing that they will be able to create an environment where weightlessness can be relatively frequently sustained for 4 to 6 minutes (compared with the 30 to 45 seconds possible on zero-G aircraft like those flown by Zero G Corp.), executives at Virgin Galactic have worked hard to create, advertise, promote, and implement true scientific research opportunities on SpaceShipTwo. They have partnered with NASA and plan to fly many SpaceShipTwo flights without passengers -- missions fully devoted to science and technology.

There are many kinds of experiments that need the longer-duration microgravity environment, but that simply won't happen if they have to wait years or wade through the bureaucracy of getting onto the International Space Station's experiment manifest. At Arizona State University, for example, we are working with Virgin Galactic to take advantage of opportunities for undergraduate-led microgravity experiments that would serve as the capstone to a design-build-test-and-fly science or engineering curriculum in a space-related field. The support from Virgin has been outstanding, and their enthusiasm for the research potential of their flights is real. Other NewSpace suborbital flight vendors, like XCOR, Armadillo, and Blue Origin, also have tangible plans and/or significant potential for enabling new areas of microgravity science and educational activities.

Still, yes, much of Virgin Galactic's motivation is aimed towards the high-end tourist market. That appears to be the basis for a viable business model in this nascent era of NewSpace. (More than 700 people have already bought tickets, at around $250,000 each.) But to succeed, they, others in the suborbital market, and others like SpaceX and Orbital in the commercial orbital market are being forced to develop new technologies and innovations that must lower the cost and increase the reliability of getting into space for any future market or end users.

That future market includes us, or at least our kids and grandkids. While today we can go essentially anywhere on the planet in about three airplane flights thanks to a century of aviation pioneering, I think it is not a stretch to believe that by the end of this century, we will be able to go anywhere in the solar system just as easily. It will never be routine, and the accommodations may not be luxurious or even hospitable, but the voyages will be adventurous and enabling in ways that we cannot possibly imagine today.

Jim Bell is a professor of astronomy and planetary science in the School of Earth and Space Exploration at Arizona State University, and Director of the ASU NewSpace Initiative. He is President of The Planetary Society and occasionally blogs on The Huffington Post. Jim's latest book, The Interstellar Age: Inside the Forty-Year Voyager Mission, will be out in February.