Pushing the envelope can be a very dangerous business. This is even more true in the aerospace industry.
There is a company in California that I have always admired: Scaled Composites. Burt Rutan and his team have built some of the most interesting aircraft ever. (My favorite being the Boomerang.)
Their most high profile project to date was SpaceShipOne, which won the Ansari X Prize. Scaled made two flights in excess of 100km above the earth (past the edge of space) within two weeks using the same vehicle. It was an amazing feat, and Virgin partnered with them soon after to license the technology and build a space tourism business with Virgin Galactic.
Unfortunately, last summer during rocket motor testing in the development of SpaceShipTwo, an explosion occurred. Three Scaled employees died, and more were seriously hurt in the explosion, including a good friend of mine from University.
Scaled recently posted an update on the accident investigation [PDF] which was quite revealing:
After doing our best to take care of the families and each other, the first order of business was to work with Cal OSHA in its investigation of the accident. Cal OSHA took through the end of January this year to complete its investigation. The agency did not determine a cause for the accident. We are continuing to work with Cal OSHA. In doing so, we hope to support Scaled’s needs as well as the ongoing efforts of others in this developing industry.
You are truly working on the edge of the envelope when such an event occurs and months later no one knows the reason why it happened. Scaled was working with Nitrous Oxide, which is probably one of the safest substances you could use and still turn it into a rocket motor. I’m amazed that the cause wasn’t determined, and hope that the many actions Scaled has taken to prevent future accidents will prove effective.
As I wrote above, pushing the edges of the envelope can be a very hazardous business; unfortunately it’s the only way to truly grow.