Tragedy should not stop exploration

Accident of the Virgin Galactic spaceship is a reminder that achievements come at a cost

Wreckage lies near the site where a Virgin Galactic space tourism rocket, SpaceShipTwo, exploded and crashed in Mojave, California, on Friday. Ringo HW Chiu / AP Photo
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Friday was a tragic day for Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic. After nearly a decade of research, its prototype spacecraft crashed during a test flight, killing one of the pilots and critically injuring the other. The accident – provisionally attributed to an "in-flight anomaly" – is a serious blow to an industry on the verge of taking to the edge of space anyone able to afford the $250,000 [Dh918,000] fee. Some in the UAE have signed up.

This was not the only bad news for the space industry in recent months. A NASA rocket scheduled to deliver cargo to the International Space Station blew up on take-off last week. Falcon 9 – a pilotless spacecraft designed to reduce the costs of space travel by delivering a payload in space and then landing back on Earth upright and ready for rapid reuse – crashed during a test flight in August.

These events, along with the Challenger and Columbia space shuttle disasters, show that space travel remains a difficult and under­tested realm that is pushing the boundaries of technology. After the Virgin Galactic incident, some observers were predicting doom for space tourism. Will Sir Richard’s dream really perish? It’s unlikely.

For generations, space travel was the stuff of science fiction. Then the space race between the Soviet Union and the United States from 1955 saw a surge in development, culminating in landing men on the Moon in1969. It reflects the human trait to push limits and test boundaries, using ingenuity to tackle profound challenges. What was achieved was truly mind-boggling.

The early days of space exploration in the 1950s and 1960s saw more than their share of failures. This was, after all, rocket ­science – and these early craft had less computing power than can be found in a Dh100 mobile phone today.

The nature of this quest is why reaching the Moon did not mean the end of space exploration, with many countries – including the UAE – setting their sights on Mars. This involves risk and the possibility of failure but it says much about human nature that failure is seen as a lesson from which success will eventually come.