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.