Dead in Mojave Desert
This article was originally published on Locomotion (ed. Ipek Burçak, 2021) by Well Gedact Publishing.
VSS Unity is the name of a reusable spacecraft that is built mainly for civilian tourism to outer space. Reusable in spaceflight context means that as opposed to conventional expandable rockets, which discards parts of its “stages” through its flight to space as their fuel goes depleted, the spacecraft can return to Earth intact in one or more pieces, allowing it to be used again for the next flights, similar to an ordinary passenger airplane. Reusability is regarded as being instrumental in making spaceflight more affordable, since it saves expensive hardware such as the rocket engines from being thrown away and destroyed during each flight. Current orbital satellite and crew launch vehicles, with the exception of the partially reusable rocket named Falcon 9 developed by billionaire, market speculator and Twitter celebrity Elon Musk’s company Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), usually throw away most of its hardware during its travel to space; rocket stages fall back to places such as the Pacific Ocean, Indian Ocean or the Kazakh steppe. According to the European Space Agency, more than 260 spacecraft stages have fallen into the so-called spacecraft cemetery, or the South Pacific Ocean Uninhabited Area (SPOUA) since 1971. The area is regarded as the oceanic “pole of inaccessibility”, meaning that from an anthropocentric perspective it marks the location that is most difficult to reach, and therefore devoid of human activity. The area is also referred to as Point Nemo, Nemo being a reference to Jules Vergne’s Captain Nemo¹.
SpaceShipTwo is a class of suborbital spaceplanes owned and operated by the commercial spaceflight company Virgin Galactic. VSS Unity is the second spaceplane in SpaceShipTwo reusable suborbital spacecraft family. Suborbital in this context means that, as opposed to orbital spaceflight, suborbital spacecraft cannot enter into a stable orbit around Earth, therefore cannot stay in space for longer periods. Suborbital craft can only perform a “jump” into outer space, and return to Earth’s atmosphere directly after a very brief visit to space. Virgin Galactic’s founder is Richard Branson, a well-known English business figure and billionaire, who in the past attempted to break various world records, such as “the fastest Atlantic Ocean crossing”, and other attempts of crossing the Pacific with a hot air balloon, or such as another similar attempt when he alongside former cosmonauts and aeronautical engineer-alike unsuccessfully tried to circumnavigate the globe with a balloon. His company Virgin Galactic will soon offer space-tourists seats on a suborbital spaceship, which will consist of a spaceplane launched by an air-launcher-airplane, and the spaceplane will bring six wealthy space tourists, or scientist carrying a science payload to an altitude just below the Karman line, a commonly agreed definition of the boundary between our planet’s atmosphere and outer space. After spending a few minutes in the weightlessness of space, the tourists will then reenter the atmosphere, and will land back to the Virgin Galactic spaceport after approximately 25 minutes of decelerating while gliding in the air.
The entire flight will take about 90 minutes, whereas only several minutes will be spent in “outer space”, just “above” Earth’s atmosphere². The company is expected to fly the first commercial passengers in 2022.
In order to be in a stable orbit around the Earth, a spacecraft has to reach the orbital velocity, which is around 7,8 km/s in Low Earth Orbit (LEO). Unlike what one might intuitively think, the International Space Station is not stationary; it travels a distance of around 7,66 km every second or 25.000 km every hour in LEO.
The SpaceShipTwo’s design is based on a spacecraft named SpaceShipOne, which is a result of a project aimed at developing a reusable suborbital crewed spacecraft primarily for civilian use and its development was funded by the billionaire Paul Allen, co-founder of Microsoft who later backed a similar air-launched-rocket project called Stratolaunch, involving world’s largest airplane ever. That company ceased operations after Allen’s death in 2018, experiencing a short hiatus from developing air-launched space transportation systems. Later the company was bought by an investment firm and shifted its operations to other businesses that do not involve space travel. During his later years Allen spent large sums of his wealth on various scientific research, including bioscience, neuroscience and artificial intelligence³.
For the United States Department of Defence the idea of a spaceplane is compelling, offering comparably flexible practices such as not just launching a payload into space, but also bringing back a desired payload or a target from space back to Earth, and landing it in a desired location; an action that can be used in military means.
Scaled Composites, the company which originally designed and developed the SpaceShipTwo, is now owned by Northrop Grumman, one of the world’s largest weapons manufacturers. The company is also behind the development of the James Webb space telescope, named after a former NASA administrator. The telescope will be launched into space in the near future and its objectives include observing the most distant objects in the universe and collecting data for exoplanet research⁶. The choice of the name James E. Webb caused a controversy, because of the former NASA administrator’s anti-LGBTQ activism at NASA and in the government in the 1950’s and 60’s.
In 2019 film Ad Astra, Brad Pitt plays the role of an astronaut who embarks on a trip to the edge of the solar system years after his famous decorated astronaut father was lost in space, as he now threatens life on earth, à la “mad scientist” trope, with an obsession of finding “intelligent life” out in space. He first travels to the Moon in order to join the crew of a military spaceship flying to Mars from there and he uses private commercial spaceflight as his first traveling method, so as to keep his mission clandestine. Similar to many cases in contemporary American cinema, we witness instances of product placements in this film, the most interesting one being the scene where the character Pitt portrays travels to a human settlement on the Moon with a fictional Virgin Galactic space rocket. As the rocket flies towards the Moon, Pitt’s character asks the stewardess for a blanket, just like a passenger would in a commercial airliner. The stewardess, moving freely in weightlessness responds to Pitt’s character politely and asks for US$125 as compensation for the blanket service in a commercial spaceship traveling between the Earth and the Moon. Pitt’s character then proceeds with the payment using a digital payment system that incorporates some kind of biotechnology implant.
The promotion video for the planet simulation and a build up strategy video game Imagine Earth (Serious Brothers, 2014) starts with the premise; the year is 2084 and “since we developed the technology to travel through hyperspace, a race to other habitable planets and spaces has broken out among the big corporations. In search of limitless growth, they leave earth exploited and its environment devastated. The voluntary pioneers and colonists are lured to this adventurous journey by the hope of a better life and a new beginning in an untouched world. Only a development strategy that ensures the quality of life for our colonists and protects the planetary ecosystem can have long-lasting success. Your job as a space colony manager is building sustainable civilizations. Establish thriving and profitable colonies on a global scale. Satisfy their hunger for resources. Take care of pollution and emissions caused by your expanding cities. With increased climate change, natural disasters are becoming more frequent and severe. Do research for renewable energy resources and develop sustainable production lines to avoid destruction and climate collapse. Let us use the second chance to change our way of life and to transform the production of energy and goods in a sustainable way. Achieving a balance between growth and sustainability is the final challenge for every civilization. Imagine Earth Limited: building a better future in space.”
As we hear the narrator reads these words, we see settlements being built on entire planets, in their various levels of advancement, with the titles: “colonization”, “build up strategy”, “supply management”, “goods production”, “terraforming”, “orbital defence”, “space pirates”, “base defence”, “catastrophes”, “space trade”, “global warming”, “melting polar caps”, “rising sea levels”⁷.
SpaceShipTwo’s first promotional video revealing details of the spacecraft’s interior starts with a slow camera movement, showing the passenger seat and a window, with a view to planet Earth, while we hear Debussy’s Suite Bergamasque as the soundtrack⁸.
We learn that the comfortable seats are created for each passenger individually and high tech materials are used such as carbon fiber and the highest grade aluminum. The technical knit material manufactured by Under Armour is extremely lightweight, we hear the designer explain to us, as he continues the talk about how everything is being thought of, when it comes to the passenger’s comfort and enjoyment of their brief and expensive visit to outer space. The cabin walls are covered with an “extremely lightweight and soft engineered foam”, to provide the tourists with a soft touch when they are enjoying the moments in weightlessness. 17 windows in the cabin offer them views to space and to the planet Earth. So-called halo structures around the edges of the windows help the space tourists to climb to their windows in zero-G and to position themselves to view the Earth below. Finally, the designer ensures the viewer and the potential passengers that there is no need to take their own camera, as 16 cameras on board record every movement of the passengers. Additionally, a large mirror in the back of the cabin also allows the passenger to see themselves while they are moving in weightlessness.
Amazon.com, Inc. founder Jeff Bezos’ private spaceflight company Blue Origin is also working on a reusable suborbital spaceship, among other projects. The spacecraft is called New Shepard, with a reference to Alan Shepard, the first American astronaut in space. Distinctly phallic looking rocket’s passenger capsule has large windows, to allow passengers to enjoy the views in their 3 minute long weightlessness experience in space. The total flight time will be around 10 minutes and is expected to cost around US$200.000⁹. The first seat on New Shepard was auctioned and the winning bid hit US$28.000.000. The company launched the first crew on New Shepard to space on 20th July, 2021. Later in 2021, Jared Isaacman, the billionaire businessman who founded the payment processing company Shift4 Payments, will travel to low Earth orbit, in the first crewed space mission to Earth orbit with only private citizens on board and none from a government agency¹⁰. The mission is called Inspiration4 and the citizen astronaut’s seats are entirely funded by Isaacman; the participants were selected after a competition open to US citizens. Each 4 crew members represents a “mission pillar”: Leadership, Hope, Generosity, and Prosperity. Isaacman represents Leadership. They are scheduled to travel to low Earth orbit on 15 September 2021, on board a SpaceX Dragon spaceship. Space Adventures, an American space tourism company is planning to facilitate Yusaku Maezawa’s trip to the International Space Station, also later this year, expected to launch on December 8, 2021, on a Russian Soyuz MS-20 rocket from the Baikonur Cosmodrome. Maezawa is a billionaire entrepreneur and art collector, who is also planning to become the first commercial passenger to do a flyby around the moon, on board a SpaceX Starship spacecraft, which is currently in development. The billionaire said that he will invite “six to eight accomplished artists” on his journey to the Moon, to “inspire the artists in their creation of new art, which will be presented some time after their return to Earth”, as he hopes this project will “help promote peace across the world”¹¹.
On a mild 28-degree-Celsius October day around noon in the Mojave Desert, VSS Enterprise -first SpaceShipTwo ever built- took off with its carrier mothership VMS Eve from the Mojave Air and Space Port in California. Carrying the spaceship piloted by two crew members, VMS Eve ascended to an altitude of around 14km, then released VSS Enterprise, which ignited its rocket engines immediately after the release. The spaceship climbed to around 17km of altitude and its flight lasted around 11 seconds, after which the craft disintegrated rapidly, spreading debris in a 56km long field. Co-pilot Michael Alsbury was killed, and the pilot Peter Siebold escaped with serious injuries, ejecting himself from the disintegrating spacecraft using a parachute. He later told investigators that the spacecraft broke up around him, as he managed to remove himself from his seat at an altitude of around 15km. He wasn’t wearing a pressure suit, and at that altitude the air contains not enough oxygen for human breathing. He survived the crash with a fractured humerus, a dislocated and fractured ankle, a fractured clavicle, a gash in his right elbow, a deep scrape in one wrist, and multiple scrapes on the back of his right shoulder. Doctors also removed a piece of fiberglass and some other foreign material from his eyes¹². Co-pilot Alsbury’s remains were found crashed in the Mojave Desert, still strapped to his seat inside the spaceplane’s fuselage.
SpaceShipTwo’s designers are confident about its safety, describing it as “at least as safe as the early airliners in the 1920s”.
Boeing’s unpiloted spaceplane X37 was launched to low Earth orbit on 17 May 2020, on its 6th flight to space; under the command of United States Space Force, the space service branch of the U.S. Armed Forces. The space drone is still in orbit around the Earth after more than a year. Its last and longest mission lasted for 779 days, 17 hours, 51 minutes. The mission objectives and details about the X37 spaceplane project are classified from the public.
: Where is Point Nemo? (2021, February 26). National Ocean Service. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714205815/https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/nemo.html
: Malik, T. (2021, July 11). Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo Unity 22 launch with Richard Branson. Space.com. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714154033/https://www.space.com/virgin-galactic-richard-branson-unity-22-launch-explained
: Underwood, E. (2017, December 9). Microsoft pioneer invests big, again, in bioscience. Science | AAAS. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714214615/https://www.sciencemag.org/news/2016/03/microsoft-pioneer-invests-big-again-bioscience
: Pilkington, E., & Randerson, J. (2018, February 14). Blow for Virgin space programme as prototype rockets go up in smoke. The Guardian. https://web.archive.org/web/20210710210104/https://www.theguardian.com/science/2007/jul/28/spaceexploration
: Contributors to Wikimedia projects. (2021, June 2). Eren Ozmen. Wikipedia. https://web.archive.org/web/20210621190905/https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eren_Ozmen
: Jenner, L. (2020, February 5). NASA Webb Will Seek Atmospheres near Potentially Habitable Exoplanets. NASA. https://web.archive.org/web/20210531201924/http://www.nasa.gov/feature/goddard/2020/nasa-s-webb-will-seek-atmospheres-around-potentially-habitable-exoplanets/
: Imagine Earth — Launch Trailer. (2021, May 25). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tn5A4n43YHA
: Virgin Galactic Spaceship Cabin Design Reveal. (2020, July 28). YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LC286Dnq4M4
: Billings, L. (2011, May 4). Space science: Along for the ride. Nature. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714215759/https://www.nature.com/articles/473021a
: Kluger, J. (2021, April 23). Meet the Inspiration4 Team, the World’s First Non-Professional Astronaut Space Crew. Time. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714220936/https://time.com/5957244/inspiration4-crew/
: Malik, T. (2018, September 18). How SpaceX’s 1st Passenger Flight Around the Moon with Yusaku Maezawa Will Work. Space.Com. https://web.archive.org/web/20210714214022/https://www.space.com/41856-how-spacex-bfr-moon-passenger-flight-works.html
: See, J. E. (2016, April 1). SpaceShipTwo Accident. U.S. Department of Energy Office of Scientific and Technical Information. https://www.osti.gov/biblio/1365134