There's a dark joke in skydiving that has the budding young student facing his instructor in freefall at 3500 feet. The student duly yanks the main parachute and it fails. The student resorts to the reserve, only to have it refuse to exit the container. The instructor shrugs his shoulders and puts his thumbs tip to tip to form a big W with both hands, the international symbol that, "Hey, you signed the waiver."
I thought of this joke when reading a story last week in which the FAA predicted the space tourism business will be a billion dollar industry within a decade. I don't know whether to believe that or not, but one quote caught my eye in the story: "The public needs a clear understanding of the risks involved with commercial space transportation, and it will need to be convinced those risks are being effectively managed." That came from Rep. Jerry Costello who is acting ranking member of the House Committee on Science, Space, and Technology's Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics and it's a mouthful, to say the least. I think there is no chance in hell that the public understands the risks involved in space flight and the industry could pay a price for it.
In this blog, I ran through the numbers on the Space Shuttle program, which was originally pitched as "shirt sleeves" technology. On a per launch basis, its accident rate was nearly 1500 per 100,000 launches. If the U.S. airlines had even one fiftieth of that accident rate, they would be raining airliners on the landscape and many people wouldn't go near airports, understandably.
But will commercial space flight be less risky than the shuttle? Probably it will. But I don't think anyone can say how much less risky until the systems are proven over many flights and we have some data to look at. The launch and entry phase are the biggest risks in space flight. The shuttle suffered one accident in each phase. At least in the case of Virgin Galactic, an air launch with a short-burn solid fuel rocket seems to reduce risk on paper. But paper is one thing, reality another.
Part of Virgin's several days of training for would-be astronauts is a comprehensive review of the risks involved including, one presumes, whatever unknowns may lurk. Virgin will fly to 60 miles or more and any flight above the Armstrong line introduces risks that the general public won't understand, much less be prepared for. It's not the general public who's flying, of course, but the moneyed public. I can only hope they're made to understand that all of the efforts made in their behalf for assuring a safe flight won't put them in the relatively warm womb of the kind of flight most of us are familiar with. This isn't the tried and tested E-ticket ride at Disney World. The FAA is not much more than a bystander on this one. Sooner or later, one of these operators will probably smear some people across the desert floor because stuff happens and it's more likely to happen the higher and faster you fly in untried machines.
If the public is properly prepped, it will get that the passengers signed the waiver and there will be no call for any more regulation that might put the brakes on the emerging space tourism. At least that's the way it ought to work. Whether it will is another thing altogether.