Reaching for the stars (Virgin Galactic)

The death of a test pilot in SpaceShipTwo will not be the last fatality in commercial spaceflight – argues TIM ROBINSON – if we want to keep pushing the boundaries. Is it time ‘space tourism’ was renamed?

Over 100 years ago – what we could call ‘air tourism’ thrilled people so much that pioneer aviators (many of them independently wealthy) sank fortunes and sometimes their lives into mastering the air. Deaths were common as a kind of brutal aerial Darwinism weeded out the poor pilots and bad designs. The first person to fly a heavier-than-air flying machine in the UK, Samuel F Cody, died only five years later in 1913, along with an ‘air tourist’ or passenger, a notable cricketer of the day. In 1912, the first woman to fly the English Channel, American Harriet Quimby, died along with her passenger, the organiser of the Third Boston Aviation Meet, when both of them fell out of the aircraft she was flying. But, such was the appeal and wonder of flight, that even a steady flow of fatal accidents did not put off those aviators and ‘air tourists’ from wanting to continue to enjoy this amazing experience. 

New market, new risks

Charles Rolls (one of the founders of Rolls-Royce) was another pioneering aviator who lost his life. (RAeS/NAL)

Even when the basic principles were understood, creating new markets inevitably led to deaths. The introduction of air mail, for example, in the US saw 30 out of 41 initial pilots die as they battled bad weather, night flying and primitive navigation. Were these efforts worth it, just to get letters more quickly to their destination? Somebody thought so. But the high cost in lives for that early air mail service were important in that is paved the way for regular, commercial air travel in the US – with the beginnings of what we know as a safe air transport system – such as radio communication, navigation aids and airport lighting. Even in the 1950s, the birth of the jet airliner age saw fresh tragedies as the introduction of the dH Comet saw the aviation industry wrestle with fatigue of metallic structures.

Today, we take it for granted that air travel is safe and that we are more at risk driving to the airport than flying. It has become an industry focused on regulations, training and standards – a far cry from the ‘try it and see’ attitude of the early pioneers. But without these rich thrill-seekers, who either flew, designed or bankrolled the early experimental days of flight – would we be able to travel in such safe comfort today?

Those early aviation pioneers, in risking life and limb in primitive ‘air tourism’, had no idea that 100 years later the main complaints about air travel would be the food, WiFi and lack of legroom – rather than whether you would live to get off the aircraft. Air travel is now a commodity with accident rates that are, thanks to technology, training and regulation, extremely low (hence why when incidents such as AF447, MH370 and MH17 do occur they dominate headlines). So where does the death of Mike Alsbury, a highly experienced Scaled Composites test pilot, in the crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, fit into this?

Extreme adventure for the rich?

Breaking new frontiers may come with a heavy price. X-15 pilot Michael J. Adams died in 1967 testing the rocket-powered aircraft. (NASA)

The loss of SpaceShipTwo over Mojave, California, on 31 October with the death of one pilot and the injury of the other, has thrown these questions of risk in commercial space travel or ‘space tourism’ into sharp focus. Predictably knives have come out for Virgin Galactic, questioning whether it is pushing the technology too far, too soon.

Critics have pointed the finger at Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic as being more focused on PR than engineering – and accused him of putting lives at risk for celebrities to enjoy a few minutes of weightlessness. Others ask – what is the point? Tech publication Wired, for example, argued that space tourism is ‘not worth dying for’ (does it also contend, one wonders, that a slightly bigger, shinier iPhone is not worth a Chinese production workers life?).

Others also argue that VG is doing nothing new, apart from reusing a 1950s NASA concept that doesn’t even get you into orbit. That may be true, but it is worth remembering that something similar could be said for the first heavier- than-air aviation pioneers. Balloons had been around since 1783 – so contemporary critics might have argued - why bother risking your life messing about with a powered version of Otto Lilienthal’s gilder – when it can only stay up for a fraction of the time of a balloon – a tried and trusted technology already in service with nations’ militaries?

These questions are framed in our risk adverse, 21st century litigious culture – where any mishap is someone’s fault and everything must work perfectly, every time. Flight testing a rocket-powered spaceplane for a brand-new industry is, by necessity, a hazardous enterprise. Every test pilot who climbs aboard a new aircraft is fully aware and conscious of the dangers it presents. Careful preparation will reduce risks – but it will not remove them entirely.

Adventure or tourism?

The sight of 200 dead bodies on its slopes does not seem to deter adventurers from conquering Everest. (Wikipedia) 

Space ‘tourism’ is perhaps wrongly labelled. It has more in common with extreme adventure sports such as climbing Everest, or deep sea diving, than sitting back while EasyJet flies you to Malaga. Indeed, over 200 have died on Everest, not in the pursuit of science, but adventure and the ‘experience’.

There is ample evidence that the space ‘tourists’ signing up for Virgin Galactic do understand this –and in fact there is now legislation that limits any legal claims arising from an accident – providing the participants sign a waiver. This puts ‘space tourism’ in the same category as adventure holidays such as climbing Everest. This is not to say that risks should be entered into blindly or that companies can have liberties to take shortcuts. It is important to note that this does not absolve companies of risk – they can still be sued for ‘gross negligence or wilful misconduct’. However, without this legal acceptance of a higher risk, space tourism would be strangled at birth.

Indeed, the company reports that, so far, it has received no cancellations in the wake of the accident - a sure sign that participants are not ready just yet to give up on their dreams and have faith in Virgin Galactic to pull through..

The coming demand?

Pioneering aviator Samuel F Cody died on an 'air tourism' flight - giving a passenger, a sporting celebrity of the day, a taste of flight. (RAeS/NAL)   

It is also worth remembering that Virgin Galactic is the most visible and public face of these new commercial space companies – but it is not alone. And a fatal accident, tragic as it may be, is unlikely to dim the enthusiasm of others reaching for the stars – as we have seen before in terrestrial powered flight.

Virgin Galactic’s sub-orbital hops may be for the rich at the moment (as, indeed, was the bulk of civil aviation until the age of mass air travel in the 1970s) but in seeking to radically bring down the cost of spaceflight – who knows where it might end? Branson has already spoken of point-to-point suborbital travel – while others are dreaming about near-space balloon rides, space hotels or even circumlunar trips. Indeed a private company proposing a plan to send colonists to Mars on a one-way trip received over 200,000 applicants – even though some experts see it as an expensive way to commit suicide.

While the crash of SS2 has raised questions, and further challenges remain, if sub-orbital space tourism flight follows the pattern of heavier than air flight a century earlier, then the life-changing experiences of the first ‘tourists’ will, indeed, stimulate more demand. ‘Pleasure flights’ performed by barnstormers in the wake of WW1 had the effect of inspiring thousands of pilots, engineers, scientists and entrepreneurs to dedicate their lives to aerospace.

If the demand is there, then that should spur a reduction in costs – and have likely benefits not only for those wanting to see the curve of the Earth and the blackness of space, but also for science, exploration and research in and beyond Earth orbit. Virgin Galactic, has already announced LauncherOne - a low-cost space access system using its modified air-launched method that could dramatically cut costs for putting small satellites into orbit. NASA, meanwhile, has already selected microgravity experiments to fly on a dedicated SpaceShipTwo research flight. Space 'tourism' in the form of limited sub-orbital hops, could, in time end up becoming a very small part of Virgin Galactic's overall business.     

Time for a name change?

The Orion 'spaceliner' in '2001' (operated by Pan Am)  transposed the 60s air travel experience into space.

But while the excitement, inspiration and sheer wonder of private spaceflight must be allowed to replicate the days of early aviation, there is no way back to these more innocent and (to be honest) more brutal and callous times. Today private spaceflight is developing under the full glare of 24/7 news and social media. Decisions can be picked apart and examined in full public view and engineering choices questioned at every turn. Louis Bleriot, for example, went through a number of unsuccessful configurations for his aircraft – but today is remembered for his achievement of crossing the Channel in 1909.

Regulators today also have a duty to ensure that companies in the field are working as safely as possible – not so much for the test pilots or passengers who are aware and accept the risk, but to protect the public on the ground.

Danger will always be part of the equation (indeed, like summiting Everest or base jumping, it is part of the thrill) but it can be minimised with proper preparation and testing. Yet there needs to be a realisation that sometimes circumstances will combine that will result in death or injury.

In the new pioneering frontier of commercial spaceflight, the loss of a SpaceShipTwo pilot was not the first fatality (that belongs to three Scaled Composites workers who died in a ground accident in 2007) and it will not be the last. But the current name, ‘space tourism’ perhaps conjures up the wrong mental images in the public’s and media’s mind – that of something like a Concorde-style luxury experience, with champagne and relaxation – not an X-15-style test flight with passengers.

In fact, if there is anything positive to come from this tragic accident, it is that (along with any Apollo 1-like technical fixes, or changes to training or flight procedures), there is now a wider and deeper appreciation that if you do buy a ticket for Virgin Galactic, you are signing up to take part in a pioneering adventure in the history of flight – where although the danger will be designed to be minimised as much as possible, it cannot be eliminated, or reduced (yet) to the level of an airliner flight. One day, perhaps, Kubrick’s vision in ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ of a shirtsleeved traveller being served in-flight meals in Zero-G aboard a sleek spaceliner will come true - but today these are still very early steps. Those who dare are is less tourists, more adventurers on the high frontier.

So, in the meantime, let’s think about dropping the space 'tourism’ name and label it more accurately - perhaps: ‘Astroventure’ or ‘sub-orbital experience’ would be better.

 


6 November 2014