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'Spaceline' test flight goes horribly wrong

When the movie "The Right Stuff" came out in 1983, a friend of ours was in the early stages of what would become a lifelong crush on Sam Shepard. Shepard is a playwright and an actor who seems to specialize -- on screen, at least -- in modern cowboys that operate a little outside of the mainstream. His characters have been the silent, observant men of few words, rugged and singular but cultured in their own ways. Or so our friend says.

In "The Right Stuff," Shepard played test pilot Chuck Yeager, who, according to author Tom Wolfe and screenwriter Philip Kaufman, was a bit of an outsider in the early space program. As far as we can remember, the movie never really touches on why Yeager wasn't part of the Mercury 7. Was it his choice or the space program's? He was certainly fearless -- he was a test pilot, flying the first plane to break the sound barrier.

Our friend always wanted more of Sam Shepard in the movie, and she recalls having a discussion with someone back in the '80s about Sam Shepard/Chuck Yeager. The person she was talking to had trouble distinguishing real life from the movies, and our friend remembers the names Sam and Chuck being interchangeable. At any rate, the subject came up about why Sam/Chuck was not part of the space program.

Her companion answered that Yeager/Shepard didn't agree with the government's approach. Rockets and space capsules -- tin cans, this person called them -- would not get us where we wanted to be. Sam/Chuck had a better idea.

We should fly into space.

The story came to mind this week, when spaceline Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo broke apart during a test flight. Virgin Galactic is determined to put the general public into space, safely, according to its founder. Safely.

What happened? We'll discuss what investigators know so far -- and what Virgin Galactic LLC will share -- in our next post.

Source: CNN, "SpaceShipTwo helmed by experienced pilots when flight failed," Ralph Ellis, Chelsea J. Carter and Jason Hanna, Nov. 1, 2014 

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