Rocket Plane Roulette

The crash of Virgin’s Spaceship2 has dealt a profound shock to the so called “Alt-space” community of pro-space activists and companies. It has brought a lot of questions from the mainstream media as to the long term viability of the concept of “space tourism”, which Richard Branson has been trying to promote.

Perhaps not surprisingly, given my engineering background, I tend to be fairly pro-space and think that exploring and utilising space is something our civilisation should be doing. Space exploration has delivered numerous direct benefits, be it GPS navigation systems, satellite communications, weather & earth observation satellites as well as trying to tackle the more fundamental questions of our universe (as Hubble has been very successful in doing). And that’s just the direct benefits. Many indirect benefits range from mobile phones, the internet, solar panels, plastics and other new materials to such things as freeze dried food and dry-flo sportswear can all be traced to research originally conducted by aerospace companies, space agencies or universities in pursuit of space exploration.

But this doesn’t mean I’ve drunk the space cadet Kool aid. I’m pro-space but up to a point. That point being where something productive is being achieved, at a cost that is justifiable. So for example, I have no problem with Mars rovers, but I would question whether sending astronauts to Mars is worth the expense and risk. What exactly are they going to do there that the rovers aren’t doing that justifies such a mission?

And similarly the idea pursued by G. W. Bush in his “project Constellation” to go to the moon and repeat the stunt flights of Apollo, why would we want to do that? This is why from the very beginning some had begun referring to it instead as “project Cancellation”, given the likelihood that a future administration would decide it was unsellable politically and cancel the whole sorry mess (which is of course exactly what Obama did).

Alt-Space has therefore taken the view that space tourism and the private sector would be a better way of funding space exploration. However many have cast doubts on this approach. Given the likely high costs of getting to space, the risks involved, the health and fitness requirements plus the time off to train (most of those who can afford to go are very busy people) it’s questionable how big a market there is for space tourism and its dubious to suggest it could replace the tens of billions that are received each year from governments.

Stratospheric space tourism, of the sort (the perhaps unfortunately named) Virgin “Galactic” and their engineering partners Scaled Composites, are pursuing, was therefore seen as a stopgap measure. Which could then serve as a stepping stone to a wider industry. However even here there were doubts, not least about safety.

It is perhaps worth reading a somewhat prophetic article from 2007 by a Dr Jeff Bell (a space scientists and noted critic of the “Alt-Space” community) titled “Rocket Plane Roulette”. As Dr Bell highlights a major flaw in the concept of stratospheric space tourism is this issue of safety.

The fact is that flying rocket powered planes to high speed is an inherently dangerous thing to do. As an engineer I understand this, but I wonder if many non-engineers realise it. To get an aircraft to attain this level of performance means it’s often pared down to the bone in terms of its superstructure (to the point where it has a very narrow safe flight envelope), loaded with large quantities of highly explosive fuel, and then used to perform flight manoeuvres that are intrinsically dangerous.

As Dr Bell points out the failure rate for such rocket planes in the past was about 1:57. This is actually worse than the combat loss rates for any US aircraft during World War II (with the exception of those flying daylight bombing raids over Germany!). If we eliminate certain classes of accidents less likely to strike a future space tourist flight or unlikely to threaten the lives of passenger, which would include ground accidents, such as a prior Scaled Composites fatal accident in 2007 (which killed 3 people) during an engine test, this still puts us at a fatal accident rate of 1:114.

And before anyone starts ranting about how most of these planes were built in the 50’s and 60’s, yet we now have modern materials such as carbon fibre and new hybrid rocket motors, think again. As Dr Bell points out a hybrid rocket comes with a serious safety flaw in that the pilot can’t perform a complete fuel jettison during a mission abort and therefore would have to try and land fast and heavy, probably beyond the limits of his airframe. In another article, Dr Bell points to the fact that when the design of the sub-orbital DC-X was swapped from an Al-li body to a one made of composites, the result was only a 2% reduction in weight which developed a tendency to catch fire.

In short Dr Bell asked the rather obvious question as to whether you can build a viable business knowing you’ll blow up a plane load of punters every 114 flights. Which if we were to assume say one flight every week, that’s roughly a fatal accident every two years! How many customers are going to be willing to take those sorts of risk? And how costly is it going to be for the operator these repeated accidents?

Of course the pro-space advocates will point to various waivers that those boarding a space tourist flight will have signed beforehand. Dr Bell counters by pointing out that:

“….anybody rich enough to pay $200,000 for 5 minutes in space will have rich relatives, rich business partners and greedy heirs who will not have signed releases. In many cases these associates will not share the passenger’s mania for space and will have opposed the passenger’s decision to fly. Many of them will be able to demonstrate financial or emotional losses from the passenger’s death and will be able to afford good lawyers”

Indeed the libertarian inspired health and safety vacuum that the Alt-space community have lobbied for could become its own undoing. Airlines operate knowing that there is a limit to how much they can be expected to pay out in the event of an accident, limits set by international agreements. Airlines also have insurance policies which help cushion the financial blow of an air crash. Aircraft makers can point to government regulations and standards that they design aircraft to meet.

Space tourist plane makers can’t do any of this. And already Branson, whose only lost staff members not fare paying tourists, is facing questions about the risks being taken with this rocket plane. It is being alleged that rocket experts have, since the previous accident in 2007, been warning about risks inherent in the design of this vehicle, which appear to have been ignored.

That said, I’d argue it’s a little too early in the investigation to start apportioning blame. Anyone familiar with air accident investigations will know it’s dangerous to jump the gun and focus on the first bit of evidence/internet rumour that come by.

Of course it is perhaps this “libertarian” streak within the Alt-space community that leads them to see government as part of the problem. In truth, we wouldn’t have space flight if it weren’t for governments. The vast majority of payloads launched are paid for by governments, commercial space launches are but 21% of the current space industry. The rest are launched by government funded space agencies, research institutes, military or intelligence agencies. Some of these Kool aiders even go so far as to blame the government and its funding of space research for holding them back. Making perhaps unfortunately analogies to “how the west was won“.

Unfortunate because, least we forget, Columbus was in fact operating in the pay of the Spanish crown (of inquisition fame!). As was John Cabot a few years later operating on the pay cheque of Henry the VII. And much of the technology of navigation and seamanship that allowed such journeys, as well as the creation of the Portuguese trading empire were the consequences of funding from “Henry the navigator”.

Also the history of exploration involved several large gaps and false starts. If we consider Eric the red his generation’s Neil Armstrong, then there was a 500 year gap between his exploits and Columbus arrival and a further 200 years before colonists arrived on Plymouth rock.

This probably all explains why Space-X, one of the few Alt-space companies who seem to have their heads screwed on properly (which probably has something to do with its chairman Elon Musk’s habit of hiring ex-NASA staffer’s), has pursued the course they have. They’ve gone for a more conventional liquid-fuelled expendable booster and plan on making the bulk of their money launching satellites for both commercial operators and government agencies. They’ve also secured a contract to launch payloads and possibly later astronauts to the ISS. Technology which could be used to launch a few fare paying space tourists in any spare seats. But clearly Space-X seems to view space tourism as a side business rather than its core business strategy.

In short, if the space cadets genuinely think that space colonisation is a viable possibility (and at present I would question whether we have the technology to do something like this), then they need to come up with a more compelling way to fund and justify it than space tourism. For the reality is that even if space tourism takes off, it will always be a niche industry. The pursuit of a (declining) number of eccentric people with more money than sense, who probably watched way too much star trek as a kid!

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7 thoughts on “Rocket Plane Roulette

  1. Of course, the Americas were not truly colonised until proper self sustaining breeding populations were established.
    Space will obviously have to do the same; tourists don’t comply! – Let’s hope we don’t have the same trouble with natives!

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      • Unfortunately for the native Americans, they were up against technologically advanced invaders. That may not be the case in the colonisation of space! :))

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      • Then we shall find ourselves “the poor Indian” as in the works of Alexander Pope.

        “Lo, the poor Indian! whose untutored mind Sees God in clouds, or hears him in the wind; His soul proud science never taught to stray Far as the solar walk or milky way.”

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    • This is actually something Dr Bell considers in another article. He points out that it is far from proven whether or not humans can survive long term on a low gravity world such as the Moon or Mars.

      I saw a talk once by a Russian cosmonaut and his task on Mir had been to experiment with the breeding of chickens in space. They had huge problems with birth defects caused by low gravity breeding.

      Even if in a well shielded colony, colonists would also been absorbing a significant dose of radiation, on top of the dose taken getting there.

      Its therefore far from clear how long anyone could live on Mars or the Moon. And pure speculation to assume long term colonisation is even possible, regardless of the trouble involved in getting there.

      I’ve heard some experts suggest that genetic engineering might be necessary, and we don’t have the technology to do that yet.

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  2. Very interesting diagnosis, Daryan. I wonder whether the concept of hubris is relevant. Exploration and pushing the boundaries of knowledge is one thing. Giving a very few of the super-rich a jolly is quite another.

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