I had not thought about this until the crash this week, but a lot of the news coverage has focused on how cutting edge the Virgin Galactic programme is and how dangerous space exploration is.
However, we have been going into space for over fifty years. A quick comparison of Virgin Galactic with the US Mercury space programme (Project Mercury) makes interesting reading.
1959-1963 (4 years)
7 successful launches into space
161-280 km max height
$0.4bn cost (at 2014 values)
2004- (10 years at least)
0 successful launches into space
100 km max height (planned - just enough to count as leaving the earth's atmosphere)
$1.73bn cost (at 2014 values)
We were sending people into space over fifty years ago so going into space is not cutting edge. Reusable spacecraft were pioneered 25 years ago with the space shuttle. It seems to me that if Virgin Galactic is an experiment, then it is an experiment in economics rather than in space exploration. Its about how money can be made from space rather than how we get there or why we should be going.