The test pilots on this flight were Peter Siebold and Michael Alsbury, and astronaut Alsbury died during the crash. The bravery of these men has allowed humanity to boldly go, again, into the exploration of the unknown.
Three days earlier, a non-manned private mission by Orbital was destroyed six seconds after launch when it went off course.
Less than two weeks after the Virgin incident, the robotic lander Philae, bounced around on the surface of Comet Churyumov–Gerasimenko (67P).
Space exploration is a funny thing for humans to undertake.
As a species, humanity has an innate curiosity about everything we experience, and a need to dissect and understand the intricacies of our world and the larger Universe surrounding it. It applies to all aspects of life. We want to know more, always more, about ourselves, other people, cultures, and the ways in which we interact. We want to know about the WHY, and the HOW. The human race is cursed by infinite curiosity, ever reaching into unknown areas.
This aspect of humanity has caused untold suffering, in that we have inflicted our wills and viewpoints, often violently, in the name of one cause or other. People have been vilified, categorized as worthy of extermination, conquered, and enslaved over the perception (right or wrong) that they were the cause of some misfortune or other.
The expansionist and egoistic leaders of the past have forced us to evolve, to develop civilized societies that provided the foundations for the great achievements to which we bear witness today.
There is a particular selfishness amongst these leaders to be remembered by history, to be thought of as to having added to the posterity of their lineage. Our major technological achievements are the culmination of perhaps thousands of critical minds, yet few are honored by the text books of our schools.
So, when manned space flight comes up as a subject of discussion, it stands alone in the context of being a truly human experience, shared by visionaries and workers alike.
And, in my view, that is an odd arrangement of agreement on a planet so fraught with disagreements over petty and trivial things.
At this time, the United States Space Program counts 18 astronauts as having given their lives in the exploration of space.
Of course, there are far more sacrifices than that, if one includes the scientists, test engineers, technicians and other people who were killed from the inception of rocketry, through the Cold War Space Race, and leading up through today’s corporate adoption of manned space flight.
I personally can name at least fifteen people with whom I worked who have died that were instrumental in making significant advancements in the industry. Some died of heart attacks, some of ‘natural causes’. Some died because of the technology.
Now, I do not want to assume that the value of one person’s life is worth more or less than any other.
I would like you to consider that almost all of these people, I feel, would argue that being a participant in our Space Program was worth all of the cost and effort expended, including the loss of lives.
Let me be clear – people die in warfare, millions of them.
Their lives are certainly every bit as valuable as yours or mine, or your children, or any other human.
But, for the brief time we inhabit it, most of us are bound to this planet.
The vast majority of humanity never goes any higher than their local hilltop.
Many climb mountains, or fly in an airplane.
But an astoundingly paltry few of us have made it into space, the Great Unknown that weighs above all of our heads for the entirety of our lives.
And that’s a damn shame.
And it needs to be corrected, right now.
Figure 1 shows a photograph of the SR-71 Blackbird, on display outside of the Air and Space Museum in San Diego, California, where I was visiting in October of 2012.
The Blackbird had two J-58 engines, manufactured by Pratt & Whitney, and I was privileged to have been part of the team that provided experimental data on test stand A-1 back in the early and mid-1980’s.
|Figure 1 - Science Fiction Author and Jet Engine Guy|
A lot of that was because of the unique airframe, and a lot of it had to do with these magnificent beasts of engines.
The SR-71 was a satellite that orbited the Earth within its own atmosphere, providing tactical data and information on the enemy forces that threatened the United States during its tenure. It could be deployed and on-station within only a scant few hours, and, because it was flown by pilots, also had a built-in ability to deal with escalating strategic situations instantly.
The men who flew it were representative of the best of humanity - sharp, keen minds, physically excellent and dedicated to the cause of advancing our knowledge.
|Figure 2 – SR-71 Main Engine, the J-58, in Full Afterburner, Non-Assisted|
You can see these diamond shaped “things” in the exhaust.
Those are called “shock-diamonds”, and occur at high speeds, above supersonic.
The engine is in afterburner mode here, which is NOT anything compared to when it ran in RAMJET mode. The J-58 used a hybrid system that allowed normal aspirated flight during take-off and landing and climb to altitude. It had a mechanism that would move an aerospike inside of the engine, that could manage where the supersonic shock waves would occur, and, at altitude, by-passed the turbine section to operate fully as a ramjet.
Now, if you can’t really see me in this photo, it’s because I am in the blockhouse, behind that engine - with my hand on the throttle.
Let me tell you, it was something else. That raw power, unleashed in front of your eyes, watching those numbers on the Mach gauge climbing to classified levels!
The ground rumbled, the building shook, and it felt as though an earthquake were happening right there!
Only, if I reduced power, it didn’t shake quite as much, and if I gave it MOAR POWER it really started to loosen your fillings.
Now, I am not saying this to brag about the experience.
I want to share the excitement and feeling of awe that I felt to be there, at that moment, which was the culmination of hundreds of people’s efforts, testing, calculations and sweat.
Some additional annoying autobiographic info:
|Figure 3 – Top Gun|
|Figure 4 – F-15 Eagle|
|Figure 5 – F-16 Falcon, Affectionately Known as the ‘Lawn Dart’|
The F-15 has two of them, the F-16 only one (hence its nickname).
|Figure 6 – F-22 Raptor|
|Figure 7 – The STS Space Shuttle|
|Figure 8 – Space Shuttle Main Engine|
|Figure 9 – SSME Turbopumps.|
(Image copyrighted internally by P&W, but widely disseminated as marketing materials.)
Thermodynamics, statics, and physical chemistry all lent a hand in determining how best to create these marvelous machines. There were architects, construction workers, plant safety and industrial security, electronics and electricians, custodians, clerks, accountants, contract specialists, government liaisons, and more than I can list, all involved in just building the facilities where these fantastic creations could be built and tested.
There were shipping and receiving areas, warehouses with forklifts, trucks, aircraft, computers, mainframes, and test areas. At one point, over 8,000 people were involved in manufacturing, testing and getting the engines to where they were needed.
There were plenty of mistakes, and outright failures, such as one of the turbine disks exploding during a test and puncturing a containment vessel, then shooting off into a wall in a bathroom – over a hundred feet and three rooms away.
I put in a pretty decent amount of time, working in many disparate areas. There was a huge amount of secrecy, security and record keeping.
So, when I start off telling you how interesting, exciting, dangerous and absolutely mind-blowing it is to have worked on these programs, I hope you can understand my passion.
I hope to make it very clear why I feel so strongly that manned space flight is maybe the most important thing EVER that humans have undertaken.
And, I also hope you can understand my excitement that manned space flight is entering a new phase with the opportunity of having private corporations engaged in continuing the tradition set forth in the last five decades by governments.
That is trivial adventure compared to what is a routine daily mission to our best.
Many years ago, in the original Star Trek series episode Return to Tomorrow, Captain James T. Kirk outlines to the crew of a mythical starship, (also christened ENTERPRISE), the importance of accepting that risk.
That speech has always stayed with me, and is one of the reasons I ended up where I am.
The facts are the same now as they were then -- when you have complicated machines, thousands of people involved in constructing and launching the most advanced mechanisms mankind has ever created, and the inevitable constraints of cost and time, you are going to have to assume some measure of risk.
Humans have accepted that risk over the centuries, which is why we stand at a pinnacle of great achievements today.
Our current world is a fast-paced, interconnected global powerhouse of talent and intellect. Every day, advances are made towards creations that free the majority of us from worries about survival, including clean water, sanitation facilities, and food.
Yes, we still have a very far way to travel before we have alleviated these problems for all of us, but I would illustrate that those problems are ones of political and not technical nature. We have the ability to feed, clothe, house, educate and care for everyone on the planet. We do not seem to have the necessary maturity to rise above prejudice and bias about each other – yet.
A manned space program provides that vision, and the necessary maturity to do the hard things. There is no margin for error. The attention to detail is ferocious, and the consequences permanent.
We learn, we try, we fail, and we integrate the lessons into our future endeavors. People and equipment are lost. Decades of work disintegrate as we all move into the future, and the hard-won secrets are sometimes lost as well.
Above all, we have had the privilege of watching the best of us test the bounds of Earth, touch the Heavens, and leave footprints on other worlds.
It is for this reason alone, the celebration of the hubris of humanity, that we need to continue to reach out, accept the risks and continue on our journey of manned space exploration.
ABOUT A.E. WILLIAMS
A.E. Williams has a unique background of military experience, aerospace engineering and intelligence analysis. He is the author of the exciting hard science fiction series Terminal Reset.
“The picture actually shows test cell A-1 at Pratt and Whitney’s West Palm Beach facility. I had the pleasure of working this test cell in the mid 1980’s. This test cell was actually an altitude simulation cell used for testing purposes. (We had a additional cell used for sea level runs for motors which were overhauled onsite also.) It used a non-afterburning J-79 as a slave motor. The exhaust of the slave was introduced to the inlet of the J-58 through a series of valves thereby simulating the speed, temperature, and density of the air at the inlet normally seen during flight. In this particular picture the motor is running at sea level as indicated by the inlet screen. I spent many hot and humid nights servicing, mounting, and running this particular cell. I was one of a crew of five. Some of the greatest co-workers I have ever had the privilege to of worked with. Sadly, the cell is no more. It didn’t go without a fight though. The contractor had to repeatedly repair his demolition equipment saying it was the hardest concrete he had ever had to remove. Sincerely, Kurt Schmidt”