How safe is space tourism?

By Phil Plait | March 7, 2007 12:32 pm

I recently wrote about Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic sub-orbital rocket plane, and described it somewhat romantically (both literally and figuratively). But how realistic is this dream of low-space tourism?

Jeff Bell’s answer is: not very. He seems very cynical, and having read some of his past essays, I find he does come down on the dour side. But that doesn’t negate his basic point: rocketplanes have a scary record, and the environment in which these vehicles are being developed is not going to guarantee their safety; Bell argues just the opposite will happen. I think that some of his points may be at the very least debatable; new materials and equipment that have been developed in recent years may make a big difference in safety margins.

But I am no expert in this field, and we’re still in the stage where both sides are hammering out their arguments. I’ll continue to read about this with interest!

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Cool stuff, Piece of mind

Comments (34)

  1. jabe

    I find Jim to be on dour side as well…. Since the missions will be going suborbital the engines won’t need to be pushing limits of their design so i doubt it will be engine failure.. Or so i hope .. Maybe space junk at 100 km altitude will be a problem :) Either way I’m go for a flight if I could afford it :)

  2. Robert

    As an aviation and space buff, I hope Bell is wrong.

    As an engineer and pilot, I fear that he is probably right.

  3. materials don’t always increase safety. The Nov. 16 2001 American Airlines flight 587 crash was caused by a carbon composite failure.

  4. Also, this issue was compared to mountain climbing after the X prize a few years ago:
    http://www.cronaca.com/archives/002936.html

  5. wright

    Bell definitely has a point about public perception. There is a certain amount of popular support for the development of space, private and government. But spectacular failures could have a high cost in terms of that support.

  6. Millimeter Wave

    I think he’s being awfully pessimistic on a number of fronts.

    First, I don’t think his comparison to X planes as comparable is apt. Most of the failures in X planes are listed as due to explosion or some other catastrophic engine failure. That wouldn’t seem to be an issue with hybrid based rockets.

    Although he does address that issue, he does so by introducing an additional irrelevant argument: he points out that, in an abort situation, the X planes were capable of jettisoning fuel, and then introduces a whole argument about the difficulty of jettisoning fuel or oxidizer from a hybrid rocket. This completely misses the point; you wouldn’t *need* to dump the fuel or oxidizer from a hybrid rocket to avoid an explosion. There’s a fundamental safety difference between an engine running on LOX & kerosene and one running on nitrous oxide & rubber.

    He also implies that SS1 was “grounded” after only three flights due to safety concerns. I don’t remember any such thing being stated. Why would there have been any need for further SS1 flights after the X prize had been claimed and the deal struck with Richard Branson? That just seems to be a manufactured argument.

    I think it would be naive to think that sub-orbital space travel would be completely safe. I’m damn sure there will be accidents and fatalities. However, I don’t think that will be enough to stop the new industry. As Lab Lemming references above, there’s plenty of precedent for dangerous adventure pursuits, and the many fatalities which occur doesn’t seem to slow anybody down.

  7. How “safe” is a public bus compared to a privately-owned-vehicle?

    If you want a trip in space you might get tripped up—risk is always there.

  8. Troy

    I’m amazed how often Mr. Bell like Mr. Data is correct. I suppose because he has excellent insight of an insider and he runs the numbers. Intuitively, suborbital flight should seem a bit dangerous. I myself wouldn’t risk it for any thing less than a moon or asteroid excursion. Actually I hope the fear of death doesn’t stop them! (But it should make everone pause)
    Another thing worth mentioning despite Burt Rutan’s notion that orbital tourism will be the next step suborbital flights and orbital flights are totally different animals. A reusable cost effective orbital machine is really an out there concept. Sure I’d love to see it but I suspect we’ll have to wait for a space elevator which to me seems much more sane(!)

  9. Of course the first to attempt it will be in much more danger than those who come after them, that’s just the way technology works sometimes. Someone has to die eating the poisonous mushrooms before we figure out the good ones. Similiarly, we can only do our best and it’s pretty much guaranteed not to be good enough at some point. We won’t be able to forecast every potential problem. The same probably happened with the first airplanes. BAM! Just sixty years later, we’re going into space. Another sixty years, why not another leap?

    The question should be, is it worth it? My own personal answer: Yes. I’d board that craft gladly despite the risks, provided a few dogs went first (i.e. no need for unnecessary risks).

  10. Drbuzz0

    I don’t think that anyone who travels into space, either by a private spacecraft or in a government program has any illusion that what they are doing does not involve a lot of risk.

    Those who go on private space ventures, such as Spaceship One or others do so because the experience is worth the risks and costs.

    There are similar activities, such as climbing Everest, which have substantial risks, but have become popular amongst affluent adventurers. Cliff diving, mountain climbing, scuba diving all involve risk of death or injury. Good planning, training and well designed technology can help reduce these risks, but cannot eliminate them.

  11. mm Wave:
    The article suggests that failure to eject the solid propellant will lead to center of mass problems in the glide stage, and/or a very heavy, very fast landing.

  12. Easy : ask an insurance how much they would ask to insure your life if you plan a trip ;-)

    It was only clear after Challenger and Columbia disasters that Space Shuttle was not 99% safe as thought, but rather around 90%.

    Risk analysis is a much difficult job than statistics. And “failure analysis + correction” a mastered improvement cycle, while the “Do it 100% right the first time” approach still remains purely hypothetic.

    I’m afraid we’ll have to wait for the first crashes to answer your question, and make it safer.

    A commercially related question would be “which reliability would you require to fly in space, if money was not a problem ?”.

    I’d say 99% now, and around 80% if I had a bad cancer…

  13. Bill Bones

    Comparing the X planes to the current projects is plain out silly. The author is making-up his points. The X-15, fai, was a rocket with VERY tiny airfoils and which landed on a sledged undercarriage at some 250mph (wheels would’ve been so small they disintegrated due to excess rpm). It was fired from the belly of a B-52 after the pilot entered it in-flight. Et cetera, et cetera. Do you think this ressembles the current projects? Please.

    The point is, we don’t know how safe is this technology today. It was abandoned in favor of multi-stage rockets and that’s how we ended up with that neither-chicken-nor-fish Space Shuttle program. From a engineering standpoint, airlift beats trust in matters of getting out of the troposphere. Airfoil braking beats rocket braking or parachute braking. This technologies have been abandoned for decades, so now it’s time to start all over again and try and test.

    Of course there will be a danger factor. Going upwards is dangerous, the higher the more dangerous. Yet somehow now we got 2 billion people who each year ride the skies in sleek aluminium bubbles at a good chunk of Mach 1 and somehow that’s the safest transportation system ever created. Space tourism is upcoming. And so far fundingposes a larger threat than the enterprise iself.

  14. Will

    I would gladly die if I could just spend a few minutes in space during my lifetime.

  15. Aubri

    Jabe practically stole exactly what I was going to say — it’s not fair to compare something like SS1 to, say, reasearch rocket planes like the X-15. The latter is intended to fly at the edge of the capabilities of existing materials, to go as fast and high as possible, while the former’s suborbital shots don’t even come close. If it were an orbital shot I’d be more inclined to agree.

  16. Al

    Um, the X-15 was dropped from a wing pylon on the B-52. Separation was before engine ignition, and the pilot perforce entered the cockpit while the whole assembly was on the ground.

  17. Gary Ansorge

    SS1 traveled at a max Velocity of 4500 miles per hour. To get into orbit would require an energy investment 16 times greater that what was used in that craft.( as in, K.E. is proportional to the velocity squared). Sub orbital flights are quite feasible, with current tech. Orbital flights,,,well, that’s another horse,,,
    ,,,but I keep hoping that someday it will be one I can ride,,,

    GAry 7

  18. Kirok

    “Cliff diving, mountain climbing, scuba diving all involve risk of death or injury. Good planning, training and well designed technology can help reduce these risks, but cannot eliminate them.”

    Very true. But as an avid scuba-diver, I’d like to point out that you face a much greater statistical risk of dying on the *drive* to and from the dive-site than while diving. I suspect the same is true for the other activities mentioned above as well.

    I lament the loss of the pioneer spirit to today’s risk-averse society. Just *do* it!

  19. DenverAstro

    I compare these initial attempts at commercially going into Earth orbit with the initial attempts to colonize the North American continent. Not because the conditions are similar but because we are attempting to reach out further than ever before and establish a beachhead in a rather hostile environment. Think for a minute about the casualty rates of the first colonists that came to America. They suffered shocking losses. But they were determined to make homes in the new world. Today, there is a certain segment of the population that believes it is worth that kind of risk to elevate man to the next level of civilization and begin reaching out to the stars. I know I sound like Robert Heinlein here but really, don’t most of you have that dream too? Someone above said he would gladly die if he could ride into orbit. I don’t know if I would go that far. I would like a significant possibility of coming back alive, thank you. However, I understand the sentiment perfectly. We have to start somewhere and in the attempt, we are going to experience losses. People are going to die. But eventually, going into space will be no more radical than flying in a jet from Chicago to London. I think there will always be ‘some’ risk. The question is, are we still a hardy enough breed to stomach the losses while still keeping our eyes on the prize?

  20. Gary Ansorge

    Denver Astro: I guess we’ll just have to wait and see. Remember however, the early American colonists were looking for a home away frfom oppression, of whatever kind. Bad times at home are the usualy reason people give up the tried and true and head for a primitive area to start anew. I wonder how bad, times would have to get to impell people to an uncomfortable Lunar environment. You know the early days won’t be easy,,,they never are.

    Gary 7

  21. I would also cut my right arm off just to fly say, to Mars and back. Awesome.

  22. james

    No Phil, you are not an expert, and niether is Mr Bell. I could go through the link point by point, but let it suffice to say while his historical information was correct, the interpretation he placed on it was terrible. There was absolutely nothing rightin his piece (except, ironicly, his portrayal of civilian spaceflight enthusiasts getting tetchy when those arguments are brought up)

    cannot be more negitive about that piece

  23. You can always tell the pioneers. They’re the ones full of arrows. Note that those shooting the arrows don’t run any exploratory or innovation risk, they simply protect the status quo–always a popular pass time by those who don’t have the guts to explore or the creativity to innovcate.

    As for accidents turning popular opinion against space tourism: we offered open cockpit biplane rides for 15 years. When some idiot would manage to crash his biplane we inevitable were hit by a ricochet in the press. And there was NO impact on our reservation rate or bottom line.

    The only impact will be if the Feds over react, and tell Columbus he can’t sail.

  24. Magnum

    I hate, despise, lawyers as much as anyone, but how could so-called space tourism companies possibly leave themselves open to being screwed by lawyers? I mean, customers of space tourism will be the mega-rich at first, and any space tourism company that has the slightest intention of staying in business will get the law team of each of its customers to sign off on the client’s perhaps reckless adventure.

  25. NeverTheTwain

    I’m surprised nobody has mentioned how often and how strenuously Burt Rutan, at least, has stated the importance of safety to his approach to spacecraft design and space travel. The famous hands-off “shuttlecock” reentry system of SpaceShipOne (and Two) is one manifestation of this attitude; so is his dedication, for now, to the hybrid rocket motor. There’s no telling what else’s he’s got in the works.

    Rutan might have some oddball ideas about the ancient Egyptians, but when it comes to aerospace engineering, he’s not a good man to bet against. Just ask the company that put up the money for the X Prize.

  26. v3rlon

    Comparing experimental rocket planes to a tourist industry is a tad unfair. Early airplane flights didn’t always end well either, and they are quite safe now. Unless you are a Czechoslavakian Flight Attendant (see the Guiness Book of World Records for falling), falling from 30,000 + feet gets you just as dead as an explosion in space.

    What about all the SR-71 flights? Those pilots got their astronaut wings, didn’t they? Of course, many of the flights were classified, so we do not know how many their were.

    I am just saying their is a difference between a TEST plane designed to push to the bleeding edge of technology, and something that is designed for consumer grade use.

    Besides, only multi-millionares can afford it right now, and killing one of those off would invite a horrendous lawsuit from a family that very likely knows some REALLY capable attorneys.

  27. Irishman

    Millimeter Wave said:
    >Although he does address that issue, he does so by introducing an additional irrelevant argument: he points out that, in an abort situation, the X planes were capable of jettisoning fuel, and then introduces a whole argument about the difficulty of jettisoning fuel or oxidizer from a hybrid rocket. This completely misses the point; you wouldn’t *need* to dump the fuel or oxidizer from a hybrid rocket to avoid an explosion. There’s a fundamental safety difference between an engine running on LOX & kerosene and one running on nitrous oxide & rubber.

    Lab Lemming said:
    > The article suggests that failure to eject the solid propellant will lead to center of mass problems in the glide stage, and/or a very heavy, very fast landing.

    I think that’s one of the faulty assumptions. The experimental rocket planes of the past were edge performance vehicles. They relied on dumping fuel to get to their nominal landing weight. They were optimally designed to those criteria, so did not have performance margin. Do you think a commercial aircraft today has to dump it’s fuel or it will overstress the landing gear? No. It is a safety practice to dump fuel, but if aircraft are partially fueled they don’t dump it all every time, only on risky landing situations. And they are designed to be able to take the full weight landing full without overstressing the landing gear or aircraft frame. Since these new rocket planes do not have to jettison their fuel for safety, and they are not being designed at the margins of performance, they will be designed to land with their fuel systems full for just such an emergency landing. Ergo, being heavy will not be a concern, and there will then not be a cg issue.

    I’m concerned about safety, and what will happen to the industry if someone does something phenomenally stupid/unsafe. But the comparisons in this article do seem a bit unfair.

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