Ten years ago when Burt Rutan was predicting 100,000 space tourists in ten years I wrote a widely debated article, Is Space Tourism Ready for Takeoff? My answer then, and my answer now, is no:
The vision is enticing but the facts suggest that space tourism is not ready for market. The problem is not the monetary expense, there are enough millionaires with a yearning for adventure to support an industry. The problem is safety. Simply put, rockets remain among the least safe means of transportation ever invented. Since 1980 the United States has launched some 440 orbital launch rockets (not including the Space Shuttle). Nearly five percent of those rockets have experienced total failure, either blowing up or wandering so far from course as to be useless. The space shuttle has a slightly better record of safety — it was destroyed in two of 113 flights. There are lots of millionaires willing to spend one or two million dollars for a flight into space but how many will risk a two to five percent chance of death?
It is true that we have been “learning by doing” or in this case by learning by exploding. In the 1960s the risk of failure was a stunning 12%. As in other industries, learning by doing reduced the failure rate dramatically over the first units but more slowly thereafter. In the 1970s the failure rate dropped to 5.2% but nearly thirty years later the failure rate for rockets still hovers between four and five percent. We can expect similar slow and steady improvements in the future but there is little reason to expect dramatic improvements in rocket technology
Unfortunately with two disasters this week, one of them sadly involving the loss of life, the safety of rockets continues to be far too low to support significant tourism. Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, which crashed yesterday, was just on its 23rd powered flight suggesting a failure rate of perhaps 5%, in line with expected values. An earlier tragedy involving tests of the rocket motor killed 3 people.
As I said ten years ago, even a failure rate of 1 in 10,000 is far too high to support space tourism of the “fat guys with camera” variety and we are not yet close to a failure rate of 1 in 10,000.
Three years ago I wrote a controversial article, Is Space Tourism Ready for Takeoff?, in which I argued:
The vision is enticing but the facts suggest that space tourism is not
ready for market. The problem is not the monetary expense, there are
enough millionaires with a yearning for adventure to support an
industry. The problem is safety. Simply put, rockets remain among the least safe means of transportation ever
invented. Since 1980 the United States has launched some 440 orbital
launch rockets (not including the Space Shuttle). Nearly five percent
of those rockets have experienced total failure, either blowing up or
wandering so far from course as to be useless. The space shuttle has a
slightly better record of safety — it was destroyed in two of 113
flights. There are lots of millionaires willing to spend one or two
million dollars for a flight into space but how many will risk a two to
five percent chance of death?
Predictably my article generated a lot of criticism, especially from people in the industry, e.g. here and from the CEO of Masten Space systems here. (I responded briefly at the time.) Some of the criticism was justified, I should have noted that space tourists don’t want to go as fast or as high as the space shuttle or orbital launch rockets, but most of the criticism was a simple denial that the evidence from decades of space flight was relevant. "Everything changed with SpaceShip One," I was told.
Unfortunately everything has not changed. I am sad to report that rockets remain very dangerous.
1938 was 35 years after the first aircraft flight of Orville and
Wilbur Wright on December 17, 1903 at Kitty Hawk North Carolina. Manned
space travel began on April 12, 1961 when a Soviet air force pilot,
Major Yuri A. Gagarin, made an orbit of the Earth. So manned space
travel is over 40 years old. Space travel into Earth’s orbit is orders
of magnitude more dangerous after 40 years than aircraft travel was
when it was only 35 years old….
Newer rockets have been designed in recent years and have unexpectedly
blown up on launch. Rutan’s accomplishment is not as radical as some
media reports present it for a number of reasons. First of all, whether
he has designed a safer spaceship is will not be proven unless and
until it has flown hundreds and even thousands of times without mishap.
Also, and very importantly, SpaceShipOne does not do that much. It can not achieve orbital velocity or decelerate from orbital velocity.
In my view the Scaled Composites SpaceShipOne flight was important
because it demonstrated the potential for prizes to spur innovation. It
also opens up the possibility that that dangerous orbital spacecraft
can be designed and built for much lower costs than NASA and big
aerospace companies typically spend.
Addendum: Randall’s programming work is already in outer-space!
Space tourism is romantic but is it realistic? On the basis of 40 years of data, I argued that rockets are dangerous and show no signs of the sort of safety improvements that are required to sustain a serious space tourism industry. Response fell into two camps, those who misunderstood the argument and those who wanted to deny it.
David at Cronaca pointed to the continuing demand to climb Mount Everest despite a fatality rate on the order of 4 percent. Quite right, but that is precisely my point. At best and for the foreseeable future space travel will remain akin to climbing Everest, dangerous and uncommon. Yes, we might see 100 flights a year but that’s not space tourism – tourism is fat guys with cameras. Branson and Rutan, for example, have predicted that in 10-12 years, 100,000 or more "ordinary people" will fly into space. No way.
The other type of response is well illustrated by Rand Simberg’s reply at TechCentralStation. Simberg argues that forty years of data are irrelevant because with SpaceShipOne "everything changed." According to Simberg, SpaceShipOne is "a complete discontinuity", "an entirely new and different approach", and yes – you saw it coming didn’t you? – "the beginning of a new paradigm."
These are statements of faith not of reason. Simberg has no data to back these claims because none exist. Let’s also remember that we have heard this sort of thing many times before. As far back as the 1960s PanAm was selling advance tickets for its inaugural moon flight. Need I remind you where PanAm is today?
I admire Rutan and I have little doubt that he has made significant advances in rocket design but what I showed in my article was that safety could have improved by a factor of ten or even 100 and rockets would still be too unsafe to support a large tourism industry.
What’s so great about space tourism anyway? Even though an increase in rocket safety of a factor of ten is not much when considering the safety of large numbers of people it is very significant when thinking about satellite launches or temporary low-orbit launches. A reduction of risk of this amount means much lower insurance costs that will open up space to new private development.
Will you be travelling to space anytime soon? What about your children? Richard Branson is betting that the answer is yes. I think not. Space travel remains incredibly dangerous and that is not about to change. My article at TechCentralStation, Is Space Tourism Ready for Takeoff? lays out the facts.
The $10 million X-Prize has been won.
To win the X-Prize, a privately funded team had to fly a craft at least 100 kilometers high carrying a payload equivalent to three humans, successfully land and then repeat the feat within two weeks.
With this accomplishment, the SpaceShipOne team may have cracked more than space, as it appears that, just as planned, the X-Prize competition has cracked open the door to space tourism.
Sir Richard Branson recently announced plans to use the SpaceShipOne design for a space tourism company to be called Virgin Galactic.
Rutan, Allen and Branson attended the X-Prize’s victory flight.
The eminent Stephen Roach says yes. The nub of the argument is that foreigners will abandon the dollar, thereby ceasing to fund our dual deficits. This will force interest rates to skyrocket and lead to a rash of U.S. bankruptcies. Brad DeLong is less alarmist, but wonders why long bonds are not plummeting in price.
Before you sign up for space tourism, keep the following in mind:
1. Doomsayers usually compare one financial flow to another; today they are focusing on trade deficits, budget deficits, and U.S. savings rates. It is easy to make measured flows appear unsustainable, because indeed they probably are. However it is less common for a flow-based problem to be compared to the total stock of wealth. One very rough estimate pegs the U.S. as worth well over $100 trillion net. And don’t forget the recent increase in the future expected value of China and India. Problems with flows are real, but they won’t, in general, bring us to our knees.
2. The late 1970s were a terrible time by many measures. The prime rate approached 20 percent, gold was above $800 an ounce, inflation and unemployment were high at the same time, and the U.S. was seen as having lost world leadership. By 1983 — a mere few years later — matters were running well once again. If a collapse did come today, we might expect a comparably quick recovery.
3. The doomsayers are not obviously richer than the rest of us. Many of them (they know who they are!) do not invest on the basis of their gloomy prognoses. And no, buying a house is not enough, I want to see at least five percent of your net worth in puts on T-Bond futures.
4. Richard Cooper offers the best case for sustainability of the status quo.
The most likely outcome: We will limp along with a government that refuses to accept fiscal responsibility. A ruling political party will not raise taxes and/or cut spending until the last possible moment. It will always look toward the problem falling in someone else’s lap. In the meantime, the wealth of the world, and the benefits of investing in the U.S., will bail us out. (Didn’t Winston Churchill once say "The Americans always do the right thing, once they have exhausted all other options", or something to that effect?)
A few decades from now the crunch will come, as growing Medicare and Social Security liabilities are matched against low levels of accumulated savings. We will have Western European levels of taxation and growth for a good twenty years or more, unless we get lucky with productivity growth in the meantime. The costs will be very real, but economic Armageddon does not appear to lie around the corner.
For those who have nearly everything and can afford more, you can now buy your own space mission (on Ebay naturally). The offer, from SpaceDev, a real firm that sells micro-satellites, does not appear to be a hoax. Although, like space tourism, this is obviously in the early stages and something of publicity stunt it is also another important step towards the private exploration of space. For more on the offer see this item in Wired News.
They are disappearing, though still with a cluster in Queens, here is one trouble they are having:
It costs as much as $4 million to open a new diner these days…compared to $500,000 for a higher-end restaurant, because diners require so much storage space for the inventory that their large menus require.
The full article, by Aaron Elstein, is here, it has numerous interesting bits.
Justin Wolfers considers that topic here. I don’t disagree with his points, but I’ll offer a separate (but somewhat overlapping) set of picks:
1. The major economic and indeed geopolitical question of 2015 will be whether the Russian economy can manage a graceful decline. I’ll say no, they can’t, but it is hard to see what lies around the corner or even to outline scenarios.
2. U.S. gdp is now growing at a five percent clip. Will that finally translate into significant real wage growth? Again, I’ll say no, see this recent piece by Barry Bosworth. Either way, this question will shape our entire future looking forward.
3. Can India continue and indeed extend its recent momentum? They are one of the bright spots in the global economy right now, in terms of rates of growth that is. I say yes they can, they “enjoy” the odd liberty of not having been very successful exporting in the past and thus they have a relatively insulated position where they can rely on internally generated catch-up growth.
4. Will Canada and Australia turn out to have been bubbles of a kind, due to falling resource prices? Will the global economy enter a new forty year period where Julian Simon is right once again about resource prices? I say the word “bubble” is misleading here, but they will see a further growth slowdown in 2015 in those two nations.
5. Will anyone still be pretending that Abenomics has a chance of succeeding? I say no, not really.
6. Will Greece vote itself out of the eurozone? (Technically speaking, that could start in very late 2014). I say yes.
7. How slowly/rapidly will the Chinese government allow the growth rate to fall? How much excess capacity will be wracked up in the meantime? Does there exist a scenario in which the growth rate decline is so slow that the excess capacity can be worked off in a relatively orderly manner? I say no.
8. Will Brazil and Mexico turn around the fading economic fortunes of Latin America? I say no, not this coming year at least. Not next year either.
9. Will the economies of Italy and France continue to fester? I say sadly so. The risk is that Germany joins them.
What are the “unknown unknowns”? (Can that concept still make sense these days, with so much on-line commentary?) North Korea was always one, but it can’t fit into the total surprise slot any more. In any case, the Sony hack and its aftermath will continue to be a big story. What else might count as speculative guesses? (NB: not all of these are maximum likelihood estimates, rather they are undervalued possibilities.) U.S. equities could turn out to be a bubble, even with continuing superior American economic performance. So we may have a 1987-style crash. The traditional relationships between macro variables such as currencies, interest rates, growth rates, stock prices and the like will not hold up. No one’s macro theory will look very good (now that’s a daring prediction). Each year the chance of a nuclear weapon going off is larger than we think. Maybe not in 2015, but the chance of France having another “constitutional revision”/peaceful revolution is larger than most people realize. Private space travel will prove ever more dangerous. Avian flu will reemerge. The Supreme Court will rule against the current version of Obamacare subsidies. Haiti will reenter political chaos. An American terrorist will operate in the Middle East and pull off one surprise attack, not huge in terms of casualties but it will create a lot of attention. The new Star Wars movie will be good.
$74 million: That’s the amount India spent on its Mars program. Modi described it best when he said the Sandra Bullock-starrer Gravity cost more to make than India’s Mars mission. NASA’s Maven mission, admittedly more complex, cost $671 million in comparison. European Space Agency’s 2003 Mars Express Orbiter mission cost $386 million. Japan’s failed mars mission cost $189 million.
Rs 7 per kilometre: That is how much the journey to mars cost India. That is cheaper than an auto ride in Delhi, which will cost you, if you are lucky, Rs8 per km.
From Saptarishi Dutta, there is more here.