Pay your money and take your chances
[This is the pre-edited version of my latest muse article for firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Fatalities are an inevitable part of human spaceflight, and space tourism companies will have to face up to it.
The tragic deaths of three workers in an explosion at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California, while testing a rocket propulsion system for a privately funded spacecraft, shouldn’t be seen as the first fatalities of commercial spaceflight. This was an industrial accident, not a failure of aerospace engineering.
All the same, the accident will surely provoke questions about the safety of space tourism. The victims worked for Scaled Composites, a company that has been commissioned to make a new spacecraft for Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic space-tourism enterprise. Virgin has announced the intention of launching the first commercial space flights in 2009.
Scaled Composites is run by entrepreneur Burt Rutan, whose SpaceShipOne became the first privately funded craft to reach space in 2004, winning the $5 m Ansari X Prize created to stimulate private manned spaceflight technology. Virgin Galactic aims to use a successor, SpaceShipTwo, to take space tourists 62 miles up into sub-orbital space at a cost of around £100,000 ($200,000) each.
Other aerospace engineers have been keen to emphasize that the accident (which seems to have been caused by a component of rocket fuel) does not reflect on the intrinsic safety of space flight. They are right in a sense, although the incident seems likely to set back Virgin’s plans. Nevertheless, it is a reminder that rocket science is potentially lethal – and not just in flight. Three US astronauts died in a fire during supposedly routine launch-pad tests for the Apollo 1 mission in 1967.
Virgin insists that “safety is at the heart of the design” of their space tourism programme. Perhaps it is now time to ask what this might mean – or more precisely, how the issue of safety in commercial space travel can be reconciled with its economic viability, accessibility, and projected traffic volume.
These factors make up a complex equation, and it is fair to say that no one yet has shown clearly how it might be solved. What, in short, is the business model for space tourism?
So far, the marketing strategy has relied on rhetoric that sounds stirring but which makes it just as well these companies do not need to seek a start-up bank loan. The vision simply isn’t coherent.
On the one hand, there is the pretence of democratizing space. While governments have jealously kept spaceflight in the hands of a closed elite, says the X Prize Foundation, commercial spacecraft will make it available to everyone. Virgin Galactic is not motivated by quite the same anti-government libertarianism, but does suggest that “safety and cost issues [have] previously made space travel the preserve of the privileged few.”
All of this, of course, sits uneasily with the fact that the only space tourists so far have been multi-millionaires, and that a $200,000-per-head ticket price does not exactly fall within the range of your average family holiday.
Ah, but that will change as the industry grows, says Peter Diamandis, chairman of the X Prize Foundation. “Over the next decade we’ll see the price of seats drop from $200 K to $50 K, and perhaps as low as $25 K per person”, he says. That’s more expensive than a luxury cruise, admittedly, but many might consider it for a once-in-a-lifetime experience.
I’ve yet to see a convincing explanation of the economics, however. Diamandis has outlined the sums on the basis that “the cost of operating a mature transportation system (car, train, plane) is typically three times the cost of the fuel.” But one of the reasons the Space Shuttle is so cripplingly expensive is that the inspections and repairs needed after each flight are on a quite different scale from those of airlines. And, one has sadly to add, even then they are evidently flawed.
Even if the business model can be made to work, it will clearly need to depend initially on rich thrill-seekers. But the early days of every new transportation technology have been hazardous, aviation especially so. Safety has tended to be a luxury afforded only once the industry is established.
The current history of manned spaceflight bears this out. As of 2003, 18 of the 430 humans who had flown in space died in accidents: a fatality rate of about 4 per cent (although the precise figures can be debated because of multiple flights by individuals). That’s comparable to the risk of dying in an Everest expedition. The odds haven’t stopped (mostly rich) people from scaling Everest, but former US astronaut Rick Hauck says that he wouldn’t have flown if he’d known what his chances of coming back alive were.
Looked at another way, manned spaceflight has so far proved to be 45,000 times more dangerous than taking a commercial air flight. It is perhaps unfair to compare craft like SpaceShipTwo with Apollo missions – SpaceShipOne has been compared instead to the US’s experimental X-15 rocket plane, which had only one crash in 199 flights. But however you look at it, Virgin Galactic is inventing a new technology, while Virgin Atlantic had decades of experience to draw on.
Who cares, advocates of human space travel will respond. Without risk, we’d never achieve anything. “It’s the dreamers, it’s the doers, it’s the furry mammals who are evolved, take the risks, or die”, says Diamandis. “That’s what we stand for.”
But wait a minute. Are you saying that space tourism will put safety first, or that it depends on the bravery of do-or-die pioneers? Either will play well to a particular audience, but you can’t have it both ways. If the argument is that a few foolhardy fat cats must put their lives on the line so that the industry can ultimately become cheap and safe enough to reach a mass market, so be it. But somehow, I can’t see that sales pitch working.