Space Tourism: Big Market, Big Risks

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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.

Comments (22)

For some reason the blog sent me back to 1970 when, with orders to ship out the following day, a friend and I ran into the warmth of the Ft. Jackson, SC Army base theatre, for shelter from the rain and cold and to view the Kubrick masterpiece '2001, A Space Odyssey.' At one point in the movie, we both looked at each other and burst out laughing - ' they're going to have Howard Johnson's in space!' It was a hotel chain I usually avoided, but heck, beds, pie and hot showers on the way to Jupiter was just too awesome to behold.

Now, more than a decade past that magical, future year, a fortunate few will pay dearly for a glimpse of Earth from 60 miles or so above, not a common occurrence to be sure, but far short of enjoying a swiss steak tray at HoJo's while gazing at Mars floating past the porthole. Happy trails to the priviledged few, and whether they understand the risks involved or not, at least they won't have Hal to deal with.

Posted by: David Miller | March 25, 2012 1:57 AM    Report this comment

All of the issues the author brings up will not be a problem if the FAA is given the authority to regulate space flight. The FAA will simply bury space flight in regulations like they do now for the rest of aviation!

Posted by: matthew wagner | March 25, 2012 12:01 PM    Report this comment

My Instructor 45 yrs ago use to say if the Rig fails cross your left leg over your right, when asked why, the answer was "its easier to unscrew you out of the ground " as for Space Tourism , though I love being in the Air , I balk at the idea of one of these flights,If it was NASA no problem, they've had close on 50 yrs to get it right, but these new Operators, i'm not so sure,it could well be a case of possibly being turned into ash, as well as being smeared on the Desert floor and all for a cool $250,000 , good Business !

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | March 26, 2012 5:33 AM    Report this comment

I am a little confused by the seeming lack of regulatory issues. As I understand it, I cannot build a on-demand charter aircraft in my high-tech garage without oversight and approval but apparently I can build an on-demand charter spaceship?

Posted by: Mark McDougle | March 26, 2012 7:27 AM    Report this comment

Whisper it, but the early astronauts said the earth looked the same from 60,000ft as it does from 30,000ft, and the same from 100,000 ft as from 60,000ft. Only the sky gets darker.

Posted by: Brian McCulloch | March 26, 2012 8:00 AM    Report this comment

It seems inevitable that there will be an accident that vaporizes all aboard - no other form of aerospace transport has avoided it, so why would commercial passenger space flight be different. When this happens, who will investigate it, how long will it take while flights are suspended, how much will that investigation cost and who will pay for it? Imagine the impact on the company's bottom line. The first accident will likely be the last for that company.

Posted by: warford johnson 11 | March 26, 2012 9:04 AM    Report this comment

Only the lawyers will profit. If I were a seriously wealthy investor I would want to know the tail of this thing that leads back to me is cut for sure. I don't know if it can be done, but the waiver isn't going to keep "the company" from being sued and "the company" is connected to the investors. Lawyers are salivating even as this is being written!

Posted by: Barton Robinett | March 26, 2012 11:13 AM    Report this comment

Definitely don't want to embark on any activity unless it can be proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that it is absolutely, completely safe. After all, that's how America became great, right?

Posted by: John Wilson | March 26, 2012 11:27 AM    Report this comment

And still in a hush, the other sought after sensation can be found in a swimming pool...

Posted by: David Miller | March 26, 2012 11:28 AM    Report this comment

"Sooner or later, one of these operators will probably smear some people across the dessert floor..." By adding the extra "s" to "desert" you've given your piece a different flavor. I always enjoy hearing from you. Thanks for all you do.

Posted by: Mike Curtin | March 26, 2012 11:41 AM    Report this comment

Cursed spell chkrer.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | March 26, 2012 12:23 PM    Report this comment

Hi everyone (do I hear groans). I really would like to do some space travelling but I would prefer to miss this part of it and reappear when the Star Trek Enterprise type spacecraft are available and most if not all the problems are resolved.

I read an article once about flying at 60,000 feet and it mentioned that if the suit you were in lost pressure your blood would instantly boil and you life would be terminated immediately. So if we are in a spacecraft that lost pressure, we would all be instant corpses floating around in space. That is one way to save on real estate on Earth I believe that in the near future after the revolution (when we get weaned off Oil) new propulsion devices will be available that will take us into space efficiently and safely without destroying our ecology.

Beam me up Scotty.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 26, 2012 1:19 PM    Report this comment

I forget where I heard/read it because it's been a while, but apparently the Shuttle had a predicted (and tacitly acceptable) predicted accident rate of 1%. I think it was in Deke Slayton's autobio I read it. Anyway, I remember thinking after Columbia that their risk analysts were pretty accurate. The point: this is the way to present the risks. Space tourists should be told that one in a hundred of you, or one in a thousand, or whatever, won't make it. That should not be allowed to shut down the endeavor (pun intended). Sadly, the general public are really bad at understanding statistics, probability and risk.

Posted by: Ben Inglis | March 26, 2012 1:21 PM    Report this comment

The potential accident rate is completely irrelevant. If someone IS willing to take the risk, let them. Just make certain it is an informed decision. What I find truly tragic is that we're so paralyzed by the fear of litigation that we won't accept even the smallest risk, by (wrongly) defining "safety" as the total lack of all danger.

I've made it clear to those I know that I understand and accept the risks of flying my Bonanza, and that if I were to die or become disabled as a result, any resultant lawsuit is vehemently against my expressed wishes.

Posted by: Marc Zorn | March 26, 2012 2:09 PM    Report this comment

Hey Bruce- all is quiet here..but I used to think too that getting beamed up and around the universe from a 'Scotty' was really cool - then the movie 'The Fly' came out... :-O

Live long enough with at least one eye open and one discovers that life guarantees neither security nor comfort - and if we humans succumb to either physical or mental immobility, we can find ourselves in slavery to these two illusions. I really think that is our society's state today in many ways. So fire up the rocket, and, can someone lend me a few hundred thousand$?

Posted by: David Miller | March 26, 2012 2:19 PM    Report this comment

I think Mark McDougle has hit on it. Under what regulations are these flights and aircraft to be licensed?

Posted by: GENNARO AVOLIO | March 26, 2012 2:55 PM    Report this comment

Hi Dave was wondering if you would show up. I agree about living long enough. Being involved in two wars told me that no one is secure and one must never take anything for granted.

Now back to space tourism and methinks we are going to see the same growing pains that dogged early flight developments and the people who chased trophies in a quest to do something first. Then came the jet age with the Comet and the loss of aircraft and passengers until they found out what caused the problems. With each new development there is a better safety margin built into them making products more reliable. I used to enjoy watching Formula 1 racing when the cars were unreliable and there was no way to predict the winner. Today the driver that get in front at turn one usually wins. We still see accidents but the vehicles are very reliable now and there are few mechanical breakdowns. This same process will undoubtedly happen with space exploration and the regulations will start to be made.

My problem is my age. This is probably the last year that I can still fly legally. So as for space tourism methinks that is just a dream but I can still dream. Just wish Scotty was around :-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | March 26, 2012 4:38 PM    Report this comment

Sign me up, everything has risks and to be a "Star Voyager" would be quite a blast. Just hope Richard Branson has a good group of lawyers to make the waver water tight. Anyway, if the Wright Brothers had said, "Let's not try this, it's risky and we may get hurt.." where would we be now?

Posted by: Trevor Evans | March 26, 2012 10:05 PM    Report this comment

"Everything has risk." So true,but people such as the Wright brothers, astronauts,etc. were smart enough to realize the risks and gutsy enough to forge ahead anyway. I think that a lot of the paying passengers will not truly understand the risks and ,since they are going for the fun of it, can't be compared to serious pioneers such as the Wright brothers,et al. They're more like expensive necessities.

Posted by: Joe Sikora | March 26, 2012 11:07 PM    Report this comment

If you want the Launch Experience, nip down to Cape Kennedy, they have a Shuttle Launch Simulator, that has to be experienced at least once,your advised not to take part if you have Back problems, i ignored that, I have never in my life felt such shaking, it loosened the fillings in my teeth and straightened my back out for about 20 mins afterwards, highly recommended !

Posted by: MICHAEL BROGAN | March 27, 2012 6:31 AM    Report this comment

I don't think it really matters one bit whether the passengers understand their risk. If things go badly they are dead. What about the families? They don't sign anything and they are the ones who will sue.

Posted by: Richard Montague | March 27, 2012 9:14 AM    Report this comment

The families will sue? That depends on what the passengers sign. Defend and hold harmless agreements have been held up in court. The family will just be suing the estate of the deceased, if it even gets that far.

Posted by: LOUIS BETTI | March 29, 2012 4:35 PM    Report this comment

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