Space Race: Virgin Vs. Blue Origin
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.
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.
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.”
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.
Procedure Vs. Technique
Kenny’s article brought to mind the Piper Arrow’s gear retraction scheme; when I last flew an Arrow in 1975, there was an “automatic feature” that prevented retraction of the landing gear at too low an airspeed, and I presume (it’s been a long time) it also automatically extended the gear when the airspeed got too low. It became customary for some of us to use the auto-override lever after takeoff to avoid extended climbing with the gear still extended.
In his article on power-off spot landings he did not mention this PA-28R feature. It would seem to interfere with the power-off landing practice discussed in “Procedure vs. Technique.” Did Piper change the automatic landing gear feature in later years? If not, perhaps the Arrows I flew should have had their gear retraction system regulated?
Aireon Casts A Net
So many people are dreaming of the VTOL replacing the wheeled automobile and scheduled flights to the resort on the moon but, it all takes little steps. These small steps toward our future are each one awe inspiring. Most of my flying was before the invention of the moving map GPS. I wasted a lot of fuel looking for land marks like water towers, road signs, notable bridges and runways painted with the airport name. The most incredible young minds are determined to make transportation easy and efficient. I believe in these folks and that they will accomplish what my generation only imagined. Each morning I can’t wait to read AvWeb and other technology reporting media exposing the latest “small step”. Oh, I got to go, my phone gadget is conversing with me about the days events. She said the traffic is slow between me and my destination and how I can get around it ;).
When the transponder isn’t broadcasting, the aircraft is “invisible” to the system To me, this is the worst downside in the brave new world concept of radar-less Next Gen ATC. Even discounting the presumably “unusual” situations where the transponder is intentionally turned off, any system with so many individual points of failure has its downsides. I laugh at the cable-TV ads which poke fun at satellite distribution because rain fade sometimes can interrupt the signal, when anyone who has both cable & satellite has probably noted the cable, with its myriad possible failure points, runs a distant second in dependability.
I have yet to see new technology enter the market that was perfected. The FAA ADS-B mandate was issued 10 years ago. Few took it serious including pilots, owners, and manufacturers. Within the last 12 months more innovation has poured into this than all the previous years. Perfect? NO. But it is going in the right direction. YES. Can it be made perfect coming out of the gate? NO. But it will get refined as time goes on and more and more aviation consumers participate. As a result costs are coming down, making compliance more affordable. More participation sorts out problems even faster. Aviation needs to stop being sore winners. How about we be thankful we have this outstanding technology providing weather, traffic, synthetic vision, AHRS, GPS, VOR, voice communications, etc. available at our fingertips in cockpits of airplanes from experimentals to LSA’s, to GA certified including those even without electrical systems, which rivals what was in an airliner 3 years ago. It will get better, even more reliable ( which is excellent now), and we will be able to refine the process of integration and separation even better than before. Is there a perfect airplane? NO is there a perfect pilot? NO Is there a perfect ATC system? NO is there a perfect government? NO But there are some excellent pilots, controllers, aircraft/engine/air-frame avionics manufacturers, and even government employees with vision and integrity. All of that is and has been making tangible contributions of safety to all our collective “keesters.”
Having both crowded skies and crowded roads is not a solution at all; it’s just creates more of a problem. Unlike trains and buses, VTOL aircraft do not scale well so you will need a LOT of them just to replace one bus and hundreds to replace just one train. It’s lunacy to believe that VTOL aircraft are a “solution” to moving massive amounts of people in crowded urban areas.
Air Force Safety Review
Among hazardous attitudes identified by the FAA: INVULNERABILITY — It won’t happen to me. MACHO — I can do it. Among the factors identified by the FAA that affect personal airworthiness: STRESS — The psychological stresses of work, school, family, or personal life are cumulative, and are carried with you into the cockpit. FATIGUE — It’s difficult to think clearly and rationally when you’re tired. Mental abilities as well as motor coordination can be severely compromised when a pilot is tired. If you haven’t had adequate rest, don’t fly. It’s instructive to remember even professional aviation organizations and professional aviators can fall prey to these.
EAA Talks Homebuilt Reform
Three thoughts: 1. It would be nice if us “regular Joes” could get a little input on this before it goes to the formal rulemaking process. 2. Where’s PNC? 3. If this goes through and “build to suit” of homebuilts goes into practice… well, there goes Part 23 for personal aircraft. It’ll be all but irrelevant except for commercial ops and training. Why pay all that money when you could hire out building a “homebuilt” at a fraction of the cost?
We have to make GA available for more to enter and our future is in the sky, not on fwy as S CAL is testimony to that. EAA is promoting that agenda and that is great. Look at how many startups and IPOs are space related and big guys, Bezo, Musk, Apple and Microsoft all jumping in. That is where high good paying jobs come in. Electrification of flying of hopping from point to point, at will, at a fraction of current cost is where the future is.
The Pilot’s Lounge: A Welcoming Airport
Well said Rick. Unfortunately, I have seen much of the opposite of what you are describing. Once I had an opportunity to put a C182 into a leaseback. The airport operator became very vulgar and aggressive with me when I asked him if he was interested. I went to another small field where i was told that they did not want any CFIs there as the top dog on the field took care of their needs. Yes we have met the enemy and he is us. Thanks for spreading the word on how to have a healthy airport.