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Will rocket accidents slow the business of space tourism? – Part 2

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  • GWEN IFILL:

    And Miles joins me now.

    What is the latest on this feathering device that you talked about in that piece?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, the idea with the feathering device is that you should never deploy it going up and you should always deploy it going down.

    So finding a safety system that answers both of those needs has been tricky. They have been tinkering with some ideas on how to go through some various failure scenarios, and looking at ways to potentially unlock it maybe a little sooner. That might have been part of the test in this case. But in any case, when the rocket motor is firing, you don't want that thing to fold over on itself, which is the ideal reentry configuration.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    You have been all over Twitter today saying, don't jump too fast to the conclusion that the pilot was in error.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes, I think there is a tendency in these cases to impugn deceased pilots.

    And in this case, we don't know that the pilot did anything wrong. He might have been responding to some sort of anomaly in the engine, which made him think we might need to go into feather mode, or this might have been part of the test to unlock it and see what happens. We don't really know. This is all what test flying is all about, expanding the envelope, as they say.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, and what NTSB investigations are all about, ultimately.

    So, between this and the accident on a launchpad in Wallops Island, Virginia, last week with another private space company, how much of a blow does this bring to the private space industry?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It's a one-two blow that the entire industry is reeling over.

    There are a lot of people who care deeply about the idea of making a real business of going to space. And these two incidents, disparate in every way, but yet in the realm of rocket science and commercialization of space, have just really taken the wind out of a lot of people's sails. I think it will press on, it will move on, but it's a setback.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Well, it raises questions about whether a government-sponsored space program is safer.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Well, we had a government-sponsored space program. We lost 114 shuttle astronauts and three Apollo astronauts on the launchpad.

    Space is hard under any circumstance. And it's difficult to say how much of this really to do with the fact that it's commercial and how much of it is government. The fact is, though, when you're trying to make a buck, it's very difficult to square that with complete safety.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And we're talking about the tourism here, largely, not the payload that was going to the space station. But certainly in this case of the Virgin Galactic flight, is it a thrill ride or is it science?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It's a thrill ride. I mean, let's face it. That's what this is all about. This is bragging rights for people who can spend a quarter million dollars for about five minutes of weightlessness.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    A quarter million dollars, that's how much a ticket costs?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    Yes. Yes.

    So, a quarter million dollars for five minutes. That's $50,000 a minute, and that's bragging rights you went to space. Could this lead to technologies which might make it possible to fly from New York to Tokyo in a couple of hours? Yes.

    So, it's worth doing on a technological standpoint, but we're at the Ford Trimotor days. We're not at the triple Boeing 777 days. And there will be more casualties along the way.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    And we have Apple, Google and Virgin all involved in this, but might investment now slow?

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    It could. I think it's going to have a chilling effect. But the people behind this are true visionaries. They really have drank the space Kool-Aid, if you will.

    And there's true enthusiasm for pursuing this, so I think it will press on. But maybe it's a good idea to stop, take an unvarnished look at this, have the NTSB weigh in, and really give us an idea of what's going on beyond the hangar doors.

  • GWEN IFILL:

    Miles O'Brien, thank you, as always.

  • MILES O’BRIEN:

    You're welcome.

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