Pioneer cover

From the press release: From the moment he is handed a possibility of making the first alien contact, Saunders Maxwell decides he will do it, even if doing so takes him through hell and back.

Unfortunately, that is exactly where that journey takes him.

The vision that Zimmerman paints of vibrant human colonies on the Moon, Mars, the asteroids, and beyond, indomitably fighting the harsh lifeless environment of space to build new societies, captures perfectly the emerging space race we see today.

He also captures in Pioneer the heart of the human spirit, willing to push forward no matter the odds, no matter the cost. It is that spirit that will make the exploration of the heavens possible, forever, into the never-ending future.

Available everywhere for $3.99 (before discount) at amazon, Barnes & Noble, all ebook vendors, or direct from the ebook publisher, ebookit. And if you buy it from ebookit you don't support the big tech companies and I get a bigger cut much sooner.

SpaceShipTwo crashes during test flight

During a powered flight test today SpaceShipTwo suffered an explosion, destroying the ship.

It is reported that the problem occurred after the ship fired its engines. It is also reported that parachutes were spotted after the explosion, but at this moment the fate of the pilots is unknown.

Update: One report says that one pilot was killed while the other was seriously injured. More info here.


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  • Chris Kirkendall

    We tend to think that spaceflight has become routine, but it’s still a dangerous business. Sure hope both pilots are OK…

  • mivenho

    My condolences the Virgin Team.

  • Mitch S.

    Condolences to the family of the dead pilot and wishes for a full recovery for the other.
    Can’t help but wonder if the pressure to have a flight by the end of the year caused needless risk to be taken (shades of Challenger).

  • Pzatchok

    My best wishes and prayers go out to the two pilots.

  • m.d.mill

    It is reported that this new engine (of a new type!) had not been tested, before its flight!
    IF this is true, there is not just incompetance involved, but lethal malfeasance, in an attempt to meet Branson’s timetable…IMO.
    These reusable engines are not so large that they cannot reasonably be tested
    at least once! We are not talking about a Saturn 5 engine set.

  • I think that report is wrong. They have been doing firing tests of the new engine for the past nine months.

  • Harsh is right. What a jerk the author is, and misinformed on how new frontier businesses form. In particular, his commentary on Elon Musk makes it sound like the man is an improbably lucky dabbler, when he has always been a space nut. Apparently this so-called journalist wanted to get himself some attention…

  • Edward

    After recovering from the shock horror and disappointment, I have a few almost rational thoughts.

    1) Kluger looks like the amateur, here, but writes with a lot of hubris. He might know how to write a good book, such as “Apollo 13” (originally published as “Lost Moon”), but he did not do his research on this topic, and he does not know the difference between physics and engineering. The difference between air and space does not change the *physics,* it changes the engineering. F=MA applies for both cases.

    Unlike Kluger’s implication, which is necessary for his conclusion, Branson is not the builder of SpaceShipTwo. Branson hired an expert company for that. And that company hired an expert company for the rocket science. The experts did the design, construction, and testing. Branson will only test for efficiency.

    Efficiency is Branson’s expertise. Free market capitalists, such as Branson, live or die by becoming and remaining more efficient with the available, scarce resources than the next free market capitalist. The reward for continually improving efficiency is the profit. Free markets have always excelled everywhere and every time that they have been tried. Socialism, communism, mercantilism, and other controlled economic systems have foundered everywhere and every time they have been tried. That is a concept few people seem to understand, these days.

    2) SpaceShipTwo has been carefully designed and tested, and when problems occurred with the original engine, instead of going ahead and taking risks with the old fuel, they expended precious time, money, and patience from both customers and investors in order to find a proper fuel. They expended a lot of these items in ground testing, despite what some have suggested. This was the first flight test. We will have to see what went wrong and, as with all test problems, learn from it.

    I have read too much about carelessness, time pressure, and casual attitude. This is a very carefully and professionally performed design, construction, and test program, and one of the most publicly watched programs. Why Kluger thinks it is amateurish is a mystery; his expertise lies outside of engineering, science, or even business — and not in researching his essays, either.

    Failures happen during test, and it seems to me that the general public is having difficulty getting over the fact that someone was killed during flight test. I didn’t hear this much concern when three people were killed during a ground test explosion, seven years ago, on this very same project, and that was not considered as dangerous as flight test. The brave lost pilot and his crewmate knew what they were facing, and certainly had trepidation as they hit the ignition switch. We had the stomach to tolerate three deaths, but do we have the courage to continue after the death of a single person?

    Which brings me to:

    3) Getting into space is expensive, difficult, and dangerous. It always has been, because we have not learned all of the hard lessons that need to be learned — we haven’t put enough rockets into space to learn all the lessons. This accident by Scaled Composites and Tuesday’s accident by Orbital Sciences are the two latest (and very public) examples, but the Russians have had recent spectacular accidents, and other countries have also had “teachable moments.”

    I have worried for the past several years what will happen after the first fatal accident occurred with a commercial crewed rocket. I thought that it would happen with passengers, most likely on a Virgin Galactic tourist flight, but it could have happened while ferrying NASA astronauts to the ISS. It turns out that this challenge has happened sooner than I expected, and now the criticisms are rolling in.

    Are we serious enough to go into space? Are we prepared for the deal that we have with reality?

  • joe

    I agree with your post Edward, although we lost many a crew member to flight testing aircraft and space, it was for the security of the United States, in the case of Virgin Galactic, it seems to me that the gain is not security of country, but gain of capital, I do not have a problem with capital gains, but safety seems even more important when its for profit, it seems to me that we tolerate death when its for the security of nation, but we have a real distaste for death when its not a pressing need for national security. In this day of over abundant bureaucracy, I don’t think that we as a nation could build the Hoover Damn, or many other man made marvels, I know that the new heavy lift cant be built because of politics and cost over runs, So private space is the future, God bless those that will be test pilots and condolences to the families involved.

  • Steve C

    I also wondered about the report that the engine was untested. I believe the correct statement would have been that it was the first flight-test of the engine.

  • Pzatchok

    I just have to ask one thing.

    Why is Branson forcing Scaled Composites to use a hybrid engine? An engine type that has already killed people in the Branson/SC team.

    Burt Rutan has nothing to do with SC anymore. He has retired.
    Northrop Grumman owns it now.
    You would think with a parent company like that they would be able to come up with a better liquid fueled engine.
    And please don’t say weight limits. External fuel tanks can be dropped and for that matter even the engines could be jettisoned.

    Hybrid engine and this company have killed more people than they have placed into space.

  • Edward


    I was unaware that Branson was forcing the use of a hybrid engine. I had been under the impression that Scaled Composites chose to use the type of engine, and chose the same type that was successful for them with SpaceShipOne.

    As for drop tanks, that would dramatically change the design from the successful one. Engineers don’t like to argue with success, as it takes effort away from correcting failures, and the unintended consequences could be additional failure rather than additional success.

    I don’t know which liquid engine you were thinking of.


    In reality, we tolerate death for non-security reasons all the time. There are construction and other industrial accidents that result in death and permanent injury, yet we continue to use the buildings, dams, and bridges on which people have died, and we continue to buy goods and services from for-profit companies that have had fatalities — including fatalities of customers. Auto accidents kill tens of thousands each year, yet we continue to drive, either for fun or for profit.

    As with my other examples, commercial space flight (as compared with passenger aviation) is ultimately worth the loss of life that we will continue to experience. We need not like that people will lose their lives, and we will work hard to prevent future loss. However, we need to accept that it will happen and that we will learn from it each time.

  • Pzatchok


    Scaled used the hybrid design because it was fast, cheap and provided barely enough to get them to the edge of space.

    The craft damn near shook apart during the flight in fact and the pilot cut the throttle early out of fear.

    The ride is NOT smooth or safe. Liquid fueled engines provide a far better ride. With far more control.

    Branson wants the hybrid type because he then does not need to worry about hazardous material handling and the transport problems he would have with other fuels. He wants to be able to fly his craft around the world and takeoff from any airport without having to go through every countries safety inspections and fees.
    So he is sticking with the safe fuel option even to the detriment of altitude, performance and in this case safety.
    You can’t tell me SC/Northrop Grummun can’t find a better engine system for him.

    He could even drop back and use a standard rocket to launch it on top of instead of that spindly powered glider.
    He could even go the space shuttle route and launch it from the top of a modified airliner. Or slung from the bottom if he could modify it enough.
    It would be nice to drive it under the carrier plane instead of using a crane to lift it to the top.

    There are other ways to go it but he just keeps hammering away at this one failed design.

    The original engine designer even quit the project after a year or so.

    He didn’t even think enough of this project to be in the country for the first powered flight of the new engine and ship.

    The simple fact is that anyone who could afford his 250 thousand dollar ticket can also afford a 2000 dollar round trip ticket from anyplace on the planet to his launch facility in New Mexico. He has no need to fly to them.
    But your own personal rocket ship is the new mega yacht and he wants to make a single phone call and fly to space whenever he wants. All paid for by someone else.

  • Edward

    “You can’t tell me SC/Northrop Grummun can’t find a better engine system for him.”

    Maybe I can’t, but I have noticed that they haven’t. Frankly, using a fuel that does not cause political trouble is a valid reason for fuel choice. At least Congress didn’t try to design SpaceShipTwo, as they did with the SLS, in that they chose the fuel for the first stage and the weight that it is to lift into orbit. Branson’s choices seem to be based upon intended use, whereas Congress seems to just want a very expensive toy (I recommend that they get into model rocketry instead — Estes and other companies have a nice selection of safe and inexpensive rockets).

    Indeed, XCOR chose to not operate out of California due to requirements to account for every gallon of kerosene. A non-liquid fuel would be easier to keep track of, so kudos to Branson.

    “He could even drop back and use a standard rocket to launch it on top of instead of that spindly powered glider.”

    Oh, *expletive* (your choice). After I hit “Post Comment”, earlier, I feared that you wold make this suggestion. Using expensive expendables is hardly a choice for efficiency. We have been talking about getting away from that model for half a century, and now that we have a few companies working toward that end, you want to regress to the still-unsafe, still expensive expendable.

    I’m sure that modified airliners were considered, as that would be less expensive that designing and qualifying a “spindly” powered glider.

    “There are other ways to go it but he just keeps hammering away at this one failed design.”

    Geez, the failure report isn’t in, but already we have jumped to the conclusion that the design is a failure?

    “He [the original designer who retired] didn’t even think enough of this project to be in the country for the first powered flight of the new engine and ship.”

    Now that is a powerful, meaningful, engineering argument. I should try that at my next engineering meeting, but just for the laugh. If we abandoned every design of mine that I wasn’t at the finish for, or the ones that I wasn’t there for testing, then we would have only flown one of mine. What a lousy career I would be having, in that case.

    “anyone who could afford his 250 thousand dollar ticket can also afford a 2000 dollar round trip ticket from anyplace on the planet to his launch facility in New Mexico. He has no need to fly to them.”

    Now you are complaining about the services that he provides? That is almost as ludicrous as complaining that he gets to fly on his own airplanes or use any of his other goods and services. Don’t you suppose that he started his own record store because he appreciated music, or does one’s passions not count for which industry he gets into? So much for freedom of choice.

    Tyrannies are all too easy to develop, but I am glad that you aren’t the ruler of the world. You would limit people’s creativity to only those things that you like. Fortunately, here in America, 300 million people do not have their creativity hampered by a tyrannical government that limits their ability to do creative things.

    (Reference: )

  • Pzatchok

    Don’t change my statement please. its the first proof you are failing in your argument.

    “He [the original designer who retired] didn’t even think enough of this project to be in the country for the first powered flight of the new engine and ship.”

    I said Branson didn’t care enough.
    He is the guy who is claiming this thing is the greatest thing since sliced bread. And is financing a large portion of it. He is not the designer of anything. Not even dreams.

    And sorry but pointing out alternative options to Branson choices is not trying to institute a tyranny.

    Again you fail in your argument.

  • Edward

    “I said Branson didn’t care enough.”

    Sorry about the confusion; your previous statement was about the designer, and I didn’t shift gears properly (I ground them and they still didn’t fit).

    [*** RHETORICAL QUESTION ALERT *** ] Why do you think that Branson should be in the country for every test flight?

    I understand why missing the test could surprise you. I have performed a large number of critical tests on very expensive hardware (that needed to be delivered in a timely manner) without customers showing up to witness them, and at first I was surprised. I have even lifted hundred-million-dollar satellites without the customer watching to make sure I didn’t drop it. But I came to realize that a customer is not eager to see a test (or a lift) when it is inconvenient to him.

    Branson has other companies to run, and despite the engine change (I’m sure that there have been many other changes, improvements, and fixes between various tests), there was nothing special about it, such as going into space, to compel him to be there.

    If Branson were worried that the ship would kill its crew (I mean seriously worried; I’m sure that he understood, even then, that getting into space is expensive, difficult, and dangerous — which he is trying to change), then maybe he would have been eager to be there to assure that a post accident press conference was handled correctly.

    This is a sign of the professionalism of Scaled Composite’s test team. Branson has confidence that they know how to perform the test, and there was nothing unique about yet another powered test flight. The engine had proved itself in ground testing, and no one was expecting it to turn into a major news story.

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