Romance and Realism in Space Tourism

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.