When things go right, we sometimes applaud technology, engineers and the entrepreneurs that help fund these innovations. More often, we don’t even notice. (Here I should point out that SpaceShipTwo had previously flown over fifty times. I, and likely many of you, had not followed more than a handful of those flights; I had to do some digging to find the total number.) When things go wrong, our reactions are much more varied, and often much louder. There are always, and always should be, questions raised. I applaud the work that is currently being done by the agencies investigating the crash, and know that this situation will become a case study in engineering classes in the years to come. These investigations began immediately after the crash, and will likely continue for many months, if not years, to come.
As someone who teaches engineering students, it has been impossible not to reflect on SpaceShipTwo this week. A colleague of mine, also an engineering professor, reminded me of the many advances in automotive engineering that came about because of attempts to break the land speed record. Those efforts were ones that involved many engineers, and also many of that era’s wealthy elite. Land speed record holders have come from families with backgrounds in diamond sales, fur trading, and other entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1904, William Vanderbilt, son of William Henry Vanderbilt and a millionaire himself, held the record at 92 miles per hour. At the time these attempts could easily have been dismissed as “thrill rides” by critics, but they also led to advances in tires, composites, and engine design.
Thank you Professor Thomas.