Space Tourism II

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.

Comments

There are many fields of testing that can be categorized as dangerous, but still - in the end - provide us with (relatively) safe equipment for commercial use, do they not? How many crashes and lives did it take before technology could provide the world with a safe turbojet engine?

The fundamental risk in rockets and space travel will never change. If any multi-millionaire that straps themselves into SpaceShipTwo/VirginGalactic doesn't know (or isn't told) that, something must be fixed. But I think there are enough people out there that are both rich and risk-seeking to keep the space tourism industry busy while they keep improving their safety record. (And I don't think the risk will ever be as high as 2-5%.)

This particular issue strikes home for me, as a very good friend of mine was one of the three critically injured in this accident. We were both Aero Engineering majors together back at university.

Russ is correct about Everest. I wrote about that in my response from three years ago:

"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."

If the NYT can be trusted, the 4% fatality rate for Everest is out of date:

Their study, published in Biology Letters, showed that there was no significant difference in the success or death rate for men or for women, who since 2000 have made up about 10 percent of all climbers. Over all, climbers had a 31 percent chance of making it to the summit and a 1.5 percent chance of dying

From http://www.nytimes.com/2007/08/21/science/21obclim.html?_r=1&ref=fitnessandnutrition&oref=slogin:

Getting to the summit of Mt. Everest could be much cheaper than it is today...in a helicopter.

http://www.nationalgeographic.com/adventure/0509/whats_new/helicopter_everest.html

Too bad the rocket-company guy doesn't read Wikipedia, or he'd have known that N2O is dangerous after all.

Alex, what's the conclusion of the argument from the premise that rocket travel is too dangerous? Is it:

(1) Therefore, space tourism should be banned.

or

(2) Therefore, space tourism won't succeed in a free market.

If it's #1, then that seems unduly paternalistic.

If it's #2, then, with all the thrill-seeking (read: imprudent) millionaires around, it seems irrelevant to cite statistics about danger. More relevant would be (a) potential buyers' *perception* of risk and (b) potential buyers' perception of gain.

Rockets are dangerous but this isn't a good example - the accident at Scaled was a simple industrial accident. Only the connection to NewSpace and Bert Rutan made it newsworthy at all.

We need to build and fly more rockets.Find a big enough market to drive us up the learning curve.
See this link for some graphs and figures: http://www.aero.org/publications/crosslink/winter2001/03.html

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I am uncomfortable with the reasoning that lumps together disparate endeavors. Perhaps it is warranted or even unavoidable in this case; the probabilities are, after all, probably too low to accurately measure for any smaller classifications.

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