Just because you can imagine something, does not mean it is possible. Conversely, it is the nature of genius that it can identify simple, elegant ways to achieve results that many thought impossible, or had never contemplated; Archimedes leapt from his bath, whilst Turing realized that an executable logic can be maintained independently of physical form. When we look long and hard at the history of imagination, science, technology and engineering, we realize the truth about what is easy, and what is difficult, is only apparent in hindsight. Everything seems straightforward, after we have perfected how to do it. Meanwhile, predictions about future technologies are notoriously unreliable. The science fiction writer Isaac Asimov was a professor of biochemistry, and he tried to be realistic about science throughout his fiction. He wrote stories set in a future where people travelled faster than light to colonize faraway planets, lived lives spanning several centuries and were served by super-intelligent robots. And yet, he wrote that the planetary colonies would grow slowly because the technology of artificial insemination would be beyond them. If we compare his speculations with what has happened in the meantime, we realize test tube babies were considerably easier to manufacture than positronic brains or hyperspace drives. The majority of human beings, ill-informed and data-poor as we are, have no good way of judging what innovations are possible, or the likelihood of failure when striving for novel results. Our only guide is how easily we imagine the desired result. That is no useful guide at all, because we can imagine all sorts of impossible things, whilst being unable to understand many things that are both possible and real. The way the universe works bears no relationship to what my mind finds convenient, or inconvenient, to comprehend. Hence comprehension is the slave of past experience. When there is no relevant past experience, we soon collapse into irrational guesswork. This is the context I want to apply to space tourism, a business model constructed around the idea of developing cheaper, safer ways to transport people into space. Headlines are currently dominated by the failure of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. Investigators have rushed to the scene, and it may take a year to determine what went wrong. But the real mystery is why we expected, or pretended, that a fatal accident would be unlikely.
I imagine that most people prepared to pay USD 250,000 for a sub-orbital space flight would have a passing interest in the history of space exploration. So here is a quick review of some of the main points.
- The first animal sent into space died long before it returned to Earth.
- In the early days of the American space program, lots of rockets blew up during or immediately after launch.
- Soviet cosmonauts have been killed by a range of accidents, including parachute failures and accidental decompression whilst in space. They survived many more near-misses, including several malfunctions with the separation of re-entry vehicles.
- The Americans suffered similar setbacks, including a re-entry vehicle that was supposed to float but which sank into the ocean instead, and a dangerous high-g spin caused by a faulty thruster.
- Even after successfully sending a man to the moon, the Apollo program suffered an explosion on Apollo 13 which very nearly crippled the vessel and killed its crew.
- Though highly experienced, the Russians finally abandoned their Mir space station after it suffered both a fire and a collision with a supply vehicle.
- By the 1980’s, NASA was so confident in its technological prowess that it gave the name ‘Space Shuttle’ to its chief vehicle, and promised there would be shuttle launches every few weeks. In practice, the vehicle launched far less often than promised, and suffered two fatal disasters.
- For all the failures of manned space flight, there have been many more failures where only machines were involved. Earlier this year, a privately-owned cargo vehicle, contracted to resupply the International Space Station, exploded after lift-off. The CEO of a rival space transport company had previously derided the failed rocket as ‘the punch line to a joke‘.
- For all the people killed whilst lifting off, in space, or during re-entry, even more have been killed by all sorts of training accidents. Bear in mind that a key reason for training is to reduce the likelihood of mistakes.
In short, space travel is very dangerous. To make things much worse, people tend to seriously underestimate the risks, despite the lessons of history. When reviewing the first Shuttle disaster, Nobel physicist Richard Feynman pointed out that promises for the safety record of the Shuttle were risible. As he put it:
It appears that there are enormous differences of opinion as to the probability of a failure with loss of vehicle and of human life. The estimates range from roughly 1 in 100 to 1 in 100,000. The higher figures come from the working engineers, and the very low figures from management. What are the causes and consequences of this lack of agreement? Since 1 part in 100,000 would imply that one could put a Shuttle up each day for 300 years expecting to lose only one, we could properly ask “What is the cause of management’s fantastic faith in the machinery?”
Even the best and most objective engineers have a vested interest in maintaining their employment. As space programs are less likely to receive funding if the public believes they will likely fail with fatal consequences, it is fair to assume that even the most honest individuals will tend towards an optimistic bias when appraising the safety of space exploration. However, it is impossible to identify anyone who is likely to have a compensating negative bias, has useful access to pertinent safety data and has significant influence over decision-making or public opinion.
To summarize, the history of space travel includes a long list of disasters, which must be presented alongside the successes. That is not to say that the accomplishments have not been profound, or that astronauts, scientists and engineers have not made stupendous leaps forward. They have. Nor do the accidents reveal a history of foolish gambles and silly cost-cutting. Space travel has cost the human race many billions, partly because the people involved try to avoid fatalities. Rather, the litany of failure succinctly shows that lifting people into space, keeping them alive in its hostile environment, and then safely returning them to Earth, is a bloody hard thing to do.
You do not need to be a rocket scientist to understand the chief problem with space travel. It requires a lot of energy. Whatever fuel is used, it needs to supply the energy to lift the vehicle, and the people in it, and the machines needed to keep those people alive, plus anything else that is being carried into space. It also needs to provide enough energy to lift the weight of the fuel itself. As a result, space travel necessarily involves fuels with enormous explosive potential, being carried by vehicles that are otherwise as light and minimal as possible.
Amidst this backdrop, enter Richard Branson.
Grinning, amiable, charming Richard Branson is a bit of a PR whizz and business guru, is he not? He has been known to fly exceedingly high in balloons, and to break records when crossing oceans by powerboat. Everybody knows he means well, and they love him as a result. Who else can persuade us to treat space flight like a joy ride in a fast car? I can think of nobody better suited to the task. That is why he should be dismissed as the money-grubbing, life-wasting charlatan he really is. Branson is a lover of music, a genius with marketing and customer service, and an expert at picking top lawyers. These are the kinds of skills that allow him to slap the Virgin brand on everything from financial products to cable television. But the truth is that Branson does not understand many of the products that he sells. That is why he needs so many different business partners, and why he relies on lawyers to extract money from those partners, when things turn sour. Our desire to like Branson should not distract us from an important truth: a lot of the time, Branson has no idea what he is talking about. He may be a great salesman, but he is also a huckster. Branson will sell you crap – or something that kills you – whilst hiding behind the defence that he did not know about his product’s failings.
It was obvious that Virgin Galactic would kill people, sooner or later. We know that people still die on planes, and on trains. We might die on a Virgin plane, or train, without feeling that Branson takes risks we would not choose to take ourselves. But when it comes to trains and planes, we can somewhat gauge the risks intuitively: lots of people use trains and planes to travel a large aggregate distance, but we rarely hear of accidents. In contrast, very few attempt journeys into space, and many of them have died trying. Branson is selling space travel as a frivolous indulgence, not because the passengers need to go somewhere, or will do something useful in space. When people travel to space solely for the sake of the experience, the rest of us should seriously question the odds that people will die for the most flippant reasons imaginable.
You might think that I am too quick to judge Branson after one failure. I disagree. Firstly, I would have gladly pointed out the inevitably of fatal accidents before this most recent disaster. The problem with managing risk is that people do not listen to the data if it does not coincide with what they want to believe, and that means most people will not properly estimate the chances of dying on a Virgin Galactic excursion until after somebody got killed. In addition, this is not the first accident involving this stable of space vehicles. The predecessor to SpaceShipTwo was, unsurprisingly, named SpaceShipOne. It was made by the same people, before Branson entered into partnership with them. SpaceShipOne successfully performed the first private manned spaceflight. When doing so, it repeatedly rolled, contrary to the mission plan. Whilst the pilot was not hurt, we should remember that the sole purpose of SpaceShipOne was as an experimental vehicle used to develop the technology for low-cost spaceflight. As such, any major unintended deviation from plan is both a useful test result, and a failure. SpaceShipOne entered space ten years ago, but even now its successor is still not ready for commercial use, and evidently not safe. This is despite Branson repeatedly announcing deadlines that subsequently slipped. He first said that tourists would be visiting space by 2007. When Branson tells us that safety is his priority, we must question what this really means in practice.
Implying that safety is paramount is one of many ways to discourage clear thinking about risk. However hard people work, however much money is spent on safety, some risk is being taken and it is more important to accurately quantify what that risk is, than to spew platitudes that suggest the risk has been minimized. If preserving life was the only priority, then nobody would ever venture into space. There is always a segment of society that wants the lowering of speed limits for cars, lower tolerances for alcohol in a driver’s bloodstream, and so forth. They do not care if the data suggests that such policy changes will have little impact on the number of accidents. In a way, they do not need to review data – it is logically correct that a slow vehicle is less likely to be involved in an accident than one that moves quickly, and that a stationary vehicle is at even less risk. By that same logic, the cost-effective way to minimize fatalities in spaceflight is to never allow anyone to fly into space.
Thanks to computers and robots, it is increasingly questionable why we need to hurl people into space. Neil Armstrong landed on the moon, and like many astronauts he was a natural choice for the space program because he was a jet fighter pilot. These days, we are rapidly approaching a time when jet fighters will become drones, remotely piloted by individuals who sit on the ground, not in the cockpit. Computers can do a lot of the flying by themselves, without human intervention. When human control is needed, it is exercised via a radio link. This is not just a safety feature; it also reduces cost and enhances the performance of the vehicle. Why add to the weight and size of a vehicle by carrying a person, and all the apparatus needed to keep him or her alive, when there is no reason to do so?
As more can be done by machine, we have fewer reasons to send people into space. That is why some models for commercial spaceflight concentrate so heavily on space tourism. Only human vanity can create sufficient demand for the technology that is being developed.
If the safety aspects do not discourage some of us from space tourism, we should also consider the economic, environmental and moral implications. Virgin Galactic is offering customers ‘several minutes’ of weightlessness for the cost of USD 250,000. On Earth, the average GDP per capita is roughly USD 10,000 per annum. So to enjoy a few minutes of floating, every space passenger will consume as much of the world’s economy as the average human being consumes over 25 years. As Einstein showed, matter can be measured in terms of energy, and because energy is bought and sold, that means we can translate energy into dollars, no matter what form the energy takes. USD 250,000 is hence a representation of the total energy cost of space flight – not only measuring the fuel used, but also incorporating the energy that was expended on making the technology. When I replace a traditional light bulb with one of the newer energy-efficienct substitutes, it will typically reduce my electricity bill by USD 4.50 per annum. At that rate, I would need to replace 5,555 bulbs to earn back the cost of an individual’s spaceflight within the course of one year. I do not know about you, but my home is not that large. I will not need that many light bulbs in my lifetime. The SpaceShipTwo is designed to carry six passengers, so 33,333 bulbs will need to be changed to offset every flight. Some people honestly believe that changing light bulbs is a vital way to address the dangers of global warming. When individuals like Branson also express sincere concerns about global warming, they are ignoring the realities of how much energy is consumed by space travel. They are also indifferent to what this tells us about economic inequality, which is intrinsically bound to the problems of managing energy consumption and the environment.
In the spirit of the Darwin Awards, I rather hope that some of the world’s richest and most powerful people continue to solicit Branson to sling them into space. If these people are so poor at judging risk, and their egos so demand another thrill be added to lives that already overflow with material pleasures, then the world might be a better place if some of them explode. Their remaining wealth will be redistributed, and maybe power will also shift to individuals with more worthwhile priorities, and a better understanding of probabilities. Nothing should discourage Branson and his son from keeping their promise, of being amongst the first space tourists. I only regret the vessel will not be large enough to carry his entire genetic line into space, and by extinguishing it, deliver an even greater favour to we earthbound spectators.
Space tourists are likely to be killed during their journey; they will take a risk that is far higher than people consider tolerable in other spheres of activity. The cost of the trip will be very high, partly because the energy required consumes so much of the Earth’s precious resources. And the trip will serve absolutely no purpose, other than providing passengers with a novel kind of leisure. On that basis, space tourism is a very dumb thing to do, and there is no tragedy when the reckless pursuit of pleasure leads a dumb animal to its premature end. The world is full of pleasure, for those who know where to look. For every person seeking leisure, there is another with more pressing needs. We can all happily live without space tourism, and the money would be better spent elsewhere. And for those who feel they cannot survive without experiencing a few minutes of life in space, I will not be sorry if their heavenly chariot carries them further than expected, on what proves to be a one-way trip.