The tragic loss of SpaceShipTwo was the second space accident to hit headlines in less than a week. It was also one of those rare occasions when the lead story in the space media is the same as the general media. The loss of an Antares rocket launch to the International Space Station was covered well, but SpaceShipTwo was a much larger story.
There are clear reasons for this. Nobody died on Antares. The ISS program was not thrown into chaos by losing a single cargo flight. We cannot say the same about SpaceShipTwo. Orbital Sciences Corporation is well-known in aerospace circles, but few people have the same universal “brand recognition” of Sir Richard Branson and his string of Virgin companies.
Virgin Galactic is more than a commercial aerospace project. It’s all about hope. Hope that spaceflight will one day be opened to the masses. Part of that dream has been wounded by this incident. We all shared in that dream, and we all feel like stakeholders in the project. Branson’s loss is our loss. The public are united with Virgin Galactic in these feelings.
In the video below, an overview of the crash site.
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A string of bad incidents in a particular industry is sometimes spun into a tale of condemnation by the media, who then question if a whole area of activity is legitimate. Sometimes this is genuinely perceptive of the media, who uncover evidence of widespread malpractice. It can also be opportunistic and unfair mudslinging against an already embattled group. To be fair to the media, the loss of SpaceShipTwo has not snowballed into an attack on spaceflight. It has been handled with sensitivity. An innocent life has been lost in the line of duty and the conquest of space. There has been respect for this fallen hero. There is sympathy for the project.
Part of this is based on personality and marketing. The world not only knows Sir Richard but truly loves him. We cheer his entrepreneurial spirit and his sense of humour. He has also been highly effective in cultivating the media over his long career. Sir Richard is now tapping vast reserves of reputation steadily accumulated over the years, like a strategic oil reserve opened in a time of crisis.
In an earlier article for Space Safety Magazine, this analyst noted that the general media had been fair in its treatment of the Antares launch failure. They have also been fair and sensitive in their handling of SpaceShipTwo. For what it’s worth, perhaps this horrible week in spaceflight has shown a growing maturity of mass media coverage of this industry. If the media are our friends, then the public will also increasingly support spaceflight.