Space Race: Virgin vs. Blue Origin

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How about a wager? Which comes first, the FAA’s vaunted NextGen collapses in scandal and budget overruns or someone—anyone—actually launches a space tourist without turning him or her into a cosmic cinder? Although there’s a Voodoo doll with my name on it at 800 Independence Ave. and restraint has never been a long suit of mine, I’ll go with the tourist. One can at least hope it won’t reprise the spectacle not seen since humanity deserted Max Pruss over Lakehurst.

The problem with reporting on space tourism is that you never know whether to be profoundly inspired by the sheer audacity of it or utterly appalled at the soaring lunacy. Whenever it’s discussed, I find myself looking askance at others to see if I can detect a facial tick or an eye flicker that might telegraph insanity having entered the room.

Nonetheless, we are clearly marching forward to the day when anyone with a robust bank account can book a flight up beyond the Karman line. As we say here in the south, bless their hearts and good luck to them. Of late, the MSM reporting on this field suggests there’s actually a bit of a space race going on between British wunderkind Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Amazon impresario Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Elon Musk is still flogging Mars between drags on a Jamaican fatty.

Anyone with even passing interest in this topic should read a long-form article just published in the New Yorker. It’s ostensibly a profile of Mark Stucky, a lead pilot of the Virgin Galactic project, but author Nicholas Schmidle seems to have found so much of interest that the piece strays into answering many of the questions we in the aviation bleachers might ask.

As of this month, Virgin Galactic has completed three powered flights of the new version of the SpaceShipTwo system, the VSS Unity. It replaces an earlier version destroyed by an inflight breakup in October 2014. Meanwhile, Blue Origin has completed eight flights of its somewhat conventional booster design and successfully landed seven of those boosters. Schmidle’s reporting gives the impression that Virgin Galactic is looking over its shoulder and worrying about being upstaged. Sound familiar? If you came of age during the 1960s, it’s reminiscent of the moon race. NASA had a name for the response the competitive urge fostered: Go fever.

Branson and company will do well to resist the pressure, considering that the company has already had two accidents and four fatalities. Stipulating that Virgin has learned from those mistakes and that it has done all that can be done to minimize risk, the space enterprise business strikes me as far riskier than the people buying those $250,000 seats might imagine. Virgin isn’t saying when they’ll launch paying passengers, but the article gives the impression that it may be sooner than later. Branson said in May that commerical flights are months not years off. Even if the company notches a dozen powered flights before taking passengers, that’s not much testing and not a broad basis to establish risk, in my view. 

As the Space Shuttle program was winding down in 2011, NASA managers—who suffered two catastrophic accidents of their own—admitted that they had vastly underestimated the program risks for multiple reasons, some related to lack of experience and data and some related to management culture. The early risk was, they said, actually close to a one in nine chance of catastrophic failure. Unfortunately, the schooling comes at a horrific tuition. The Shuttle’s demonstrated accident rate was the equivalent of 15 vehicle losses per 1000 flights. It’s hard to imagine a commercial business sustaining with even an accident or two, especially ones that leave bodies scattered across the desert. I’ll concede that the Shuttle was orders of magnitude more complex and powerful than either Virgin’s or Blue Origin’s machines, but it also had vastly more developmental resources. 

Another curious revelation in Schmidle’s article was a revival of the spam-in-the-can put down of automated flight routines popularized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. This evidently stems from Burt Rutan’s assertion that if space was to be cheap, it would have to be a stick and rudder undertaking. In other words, hand flown. That might have been true when he originally designed the vehicle, but in an avionics universe that has reduced the cost of an autopilot from $25,000 to $5000, is it still? Dismissing Blue Origin’s fully automated flight profile, Stucky asked what the occupants would be doing up there if no one was actually flying the vehicle. The same could be asked of Virgin’s passengers. They’re going as gawkers, not to carry out solar radiation experiments. Think of it as the planet’s most expensive selfie.

You knew I’d get to asking this: Would you pay $250,000 for such a flight and if you would, which would you prefer, Virgin or Blue Origin? What if a rich benefactor offered to pay the fare? What then? I asked my colleague Paul Dye, who edits Kitplanes magazine after a career at NASA as a senior flight director on the Shuttle and the ISS. No thanks to Blue Origin, he said; the flight profile has no appeal. And he’s not ready to get on SpaceShipTwo, either.

I’m in the same place, but perhaps for different reasons. Richard Branson has said he believes the space tourism business is worth billions because so many people will find the experience transformative. He may very well be right. But in order for that to be so, you’d have to survive it. Otherwise the transformation is from a sentient bag of bones and blood to elemental carbon bits and that’s not what I have in mind.

None of this to suggest space tourism isn’t a good idea nor that it won’t flourish. It’s just that I lack the smarts to make any kind of realistic risk judgement about whether the ride is worth it. So, I might go eventually. But you go first and send me your selfie.

 

Comments (6)

Rather than wonder whether these tourist spacecraft should be human-flown or automated, perhaps we should ask why ANY type of manned space flight still is being pursued - whether by thrill-seekers or by governments. Seriously.

The first full-up casino in Massachusetts opened two miles from here, two weeks ago. I don't gamble; don't really understand why others do, either. But I'm pretty sure that the roulette tables at the MGM don't offer Russian roulette to "the adventurous."

Posted by: YARS (Tom Yarsley) | September 12, 2018 10:08 AM    Report this comment

OK ... I'll go with space tourism over NextGen prima facie, as well. But not before someone high up at 800 Independence has to wipe a lot of scrambled eggs off their face. The Government has unlimited funds so ... they'll just keep plodding along like a perpetual motion machine proving that it is possible.

Off topic slightly on the topic of ADS-B (aka NextGen) shading. Just yesterday I was talking with a close friend who is a retired ATP airline type who ran a serious seaplane school in FL. He has ~10K seaplane hrs. He told me that his regular transponder antenna on his flying boat had to be mounted on the bottom of the R wing. Every time he was traveling SW toward Winter Haven north of MCO, the radar boys couldn't see him but could on the way back. He told me he considered mounting a second antenna on the L wing and putting an RF switch in. He supported MY position as to shading on some of the new systems. I am ever more convinced that 'the boys' are certifying these systems because they're nervous and want to get more airplanes equipped. Is that close to 'egg?'

BTW ... I am now convinced that the aches and pains I endure every AM trying to get vertical are the result of pin pricks on MY doll someplace downstream of yours at 'The Agency.'

Posted by: Larry Stencel | September 12, 2018 10:36 AM    Report this comment

The "race" between Blue Origin and Virgin seems to come down to sales hype. Branson, the ultimate showman, has the charisma to make his rocket powered shuttlecock look inviting while Bezos' more mundane capsule has some actual historical experience to draw upon. Only recently has Blue Origin allowed real-time public viewing of their launches. Maybe they are feeling the compeitive heat. Competition may be good for lowering the cost of the adventure, but not necessarily for improving safety. NASA had huge resources for building their space projects, but they still fell victim to competitive pressures, both in the Russian space race (Apollo One) and the time pressures of launching in front of the TV cameras (i.e. Challenger & Columbia). Haste is not the friend of safety.

In answer to your question, I would be more likely to favor the Blue Origin concept over the shuttlecock. To me, the argument of full automation over a pilot-guided vehicle is not the big issue. I'm just not inclined to plunk down the price of a nice used Cirrus for a 15 minute thrill ride. If there are enough thrill seeking one-percenters out there to support the two companies for a few years, then maybe when the price drops by 90% and their safety record is 99.9% for several dozen launches, I might reconsider. Good article as always. Thanks.

Posted by: John McNamee | September 12, 2018 1:09 PM    Report this comment

In a world now steeped in virtual reality, preoccupation with selfies, and social media replacing eyeball to eyeball contact, I doubt that either space travel venture will get much airplay. Not much today causes true wonderment of a new frontier. Loss of an internet signal or one's smartphone battery dies does get people excited but nothing like the wow factor of a high speed fireball as a tourist spacecraft self-destructs.Sort of like gaper's block on a national scale. Then head down, back to the smartphone once the smoke clears.

Sir Richard is the master showman and marketeer. Risk does have it's appeal keeping tourist travel prices high. So, I believe, the first blast off will be by Branson. Besides any catastrophe will never be wasted and just might provide enough press coverage to fill social media adherents with another reason to hit the "like" button. That alone will provide enough incentive for those who have the disposable income to plunk down $250K to be one of those who has "the right stuff".

If I had $250K lying around, I would find out what it is like to fly a P-51, paint my old Bo, and use the rest to help folks who need money, food, health, or hope. Being a positive influence in other's lives is what really transforms. An adrenaline rush is not heart transformation, it's just over stimulation.

ADS-B cost overruns, laced with corruptions, and maybe a breakdown or two? This is normal government service delivery just like Amtrak, the F-35, and the 50 cent stamp. And Amtrak, the F-35, and the USPS are still alive and functioning ( in a relative sense). NexGen will be with us a long time, egg and all.

Posted by: Jim Holdeman | September 12, 2018 2:07 PM    Report this comment

There's an old "Saturday Night Live" skit, where a set of feckless young celebrities one-up each other with claims of derring-do and having relationships with certain beautiful young women. I see space tourism as just another aspect of that...those with the dough will do it just for the sake of brag. Yes, they will have "gone into space." But the international astronaut/cosomonaut organization (the Association of Space Explorers) won't recognize that. They require members have completed at least one orbit.

I recently retired with 40 years' experience in developing and operating space vehicles. Several of my former co-workers are now working for Blue Origin. I have no doubt as to the quality of the engineering involved.

Still...it's space travel, and the risks can be reduced only so far. Werner Von Brawn is alleged to have said: "There's a fine line between a rocket and a bomb. The finer the line, the better the rocket." Countdowns are used in two circumstances: The sequencing of firing a rocket, and as a warning before triggering high explosives. This is not a coincidence.

Best advice comes from that unending font of engineering wisdom, Monty Python's Flying Circus: "Never kill a customer." Yet space tourism WILL kill customers at some point. Considering that the customers are all millionaires and billionaires, it's likely the deaths will be accompanied by huge lawsuits. Be interesting to learn how Bezos and Branson are protecting themselves.

Posted by: ron wanttaja | September 12, 2018 8:15 PM    Report this comment

The early decades of aviation were pretty risky, too. Even today people strap some silk to their back and jump out of them, just for fun.
The applications of aviation were limited in those early years. The applications of spaceflight are limited in these early days, as well (it's merely a multi-billion dollar industry...). It is worth noting that there is a lot more space and a lot more in it than there is in the sky...

While Blue and Virgin will probably succeed operationally eventually, it probably won't last for very long. If SpaceX has its way, they'll be flying hundreds of people nearly orbitally on a daily basis in a decade or so for far far less money, and with much longer (0.5 - 1hr vs 10 mins) flight to boot. See their Earth to Earth rocket concept. Virgin's prospects, in particular, seem limited, while at least Blue is leveraging its experience and technology on their orbital New Glenn rocket.

Posted by: Cameron Garner | September 13, 2018 9:52 PM    Report this comment

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