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Taking a chance on space travel

I yield to no-one in my enthusiasm for space flight and in my admiration for men like this guy who are now so magnificently pioneering it, but I yield to anyone who challenges me on the technicalities of it. However, I do wish myself to challenge this man (thanks to Instapundit for linkage to this argument). Alexander Tabarrok, in a recent TCS article questioning the immediately future of space tourism, put, among other things, this question:

The space shuttle has a slightly better record of safety – it was destroyed in two of 113 flights. There are lots of millionaires willing to spend one or two million dollars for a flight into space but how many will risk a two to five percent chance of death?

I would not have noticed this very rhetorical question had Rand Simberg not also singled it out, so particular thanks to him also.

As I say, I know next to nothing of how quickly the costs of space travel are going to plummet (other than that they will plummet, just as Simberg says) as more people want to get in on it, but one thing I do know is that if those are now the death odds you face, the queue is going, contrary to what Alexander Tabarrok says with his question, to be a very long one.

Tabarrok has a very limited idea, it seems to me, of what a millionaire is these days. Presumably when he typed in his question, he had in mind a rigidly rational calculator of odds, sitting at his dull desk, wearing a dull suit, fully 42 and more than usually plain for his age, who spends his entire life looking at boring safety graphs (Tabarrok features a boring safety graph at the bottom of his piece) and who never so much as sets a foot on a water ski, let alone anything at all seriously risky. But what of the millionaires of a more fun loving and risk friendly disposition? Has he never met any of those?

Above all, what of the millionaire sons of the world’s now really quite numerous billionaires? This is a notoriously risk embracing group. These people are famous for taking hair-raising risks, if only to impress all the girls they so like to chase after. They cannot out-earn dad, but they can at list out-stunt him. The now highly established (and now insufferably safe) sport of motor racing owes its entire existence to a couple of generations of nineteen thirties and nineteen fifties (they spent the nineteen forties killing each other) young tearaways with more money than sense, or to put it another way, with a bit of imagination when it came to spending money. What on earth makes Tabarrok think that death odds of a mere five per cent a pop would put off young men of that sort, and what makes him think that the world is not now massively fuller of such wacky racer types than in was in the nineteen thirties? One in twenty are the kind of odds that will actually make the queue longer. They certainly will not shorten it much.

Hell, a one in twenty chance of a quick and glorious death (already, I would surmise, far more dignified and far cheaper than a long spell of Alzheimer’s), but a nineteen out of twenty chance of one of the great Bragging Rights of the early twenty first century, would be enough to entice me into space, if only I could afford the ticket.

Tabarrok’s headline is a similarly timid pseudo-question: “Is space tourism ready for take-off?” Damn right it is.

23 comments to Taking a chance on space travel

  • Alex Tabarrok has some more comments at Marginal Revolution(Link).

    I think you’ve missed his point slightly. It’s not so much that we won’t see a handful of rich thrill-seekers buying tickets into space, but that we shouldn’t expect to see masses of sightseers. Relevant quote:

    David at Cronaca pointed to the continuing demand to climb Mount Everest despite a fatality rate on the order of 4 percent. Quite right, but that is precisely my point. At best and for the foreseeable future space travel will remain akin to climbing Everest, dangerous and uncommon. Yes, we might see 100 flights a year but that’s not space tourism – tourism is fat guys with cameras.

    For some re-rebuttals, follow the trackbacks to his post.

  • “tourism is fat guys with cameras”

    Yes but fat guys with cameras couldn’t climb Everest even if they wanted to.

    On the other hand, almost anybody with normal fitness can manage a couple of minutes at 2.5 g.

  • Hell, a one in twenty chance of a quick and glorious death (already, I would surmise, far more dignified and far cheaper than a long spell of Alzheimer’s), but a nineteen out of twenty chance of one of the great Bragging Rights of the early twenty first century, would be enough to entice me into space, if only I could afford the ticket.

    Damn right. Traveling to space is my biggest dream ever. The only thing that has been preventing me from any serious risk taking for the past 11 years is the responsibility towards my child. Figuring he should be well settled on his own without really needing me any more in less than 20 years. I will be about 60, hopefully still in as good a shape as I am now. I am no millionaire (are you kidding?), but it is reasonable to expect that in 20 years space travel will become affordable for most of upper-middle class. BTW, the risk factor should probably be much lower by that time as well. Definitely something to look forward to.

  • I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir on this site, but like Alisa said space travel is likely to become far more ubiquitous over the next 20 yrs. Not just space tourism, either. Nanotech materials – structural diamond, basically – will enable the construction of both very low-weight launch vehicles, probably true SSTOs, as well as one (or more) space elevators. It’s the latter that will make all the difference, really, by bringing the cost down so far that large-scale civil engineering projects, colonies etc actually become practical from an economic standpoint.

    And, no, it won’t be totally safe. No frontier ever has been, and this is the most dangerous frontier any life-form from this planet has ever encountered. I don’t think anyone has ever even suggested that space colonization will be safe. That’s part of the attraction, at least for the crazy young males who tend to make up a disproportionate part of any frontier population.

  • BTW, apropos risk, we all are driving, or, at least, are being driven on the modern crowded highways. Maybe it’s because I live in Israel, but to me this is as risky as it gets.

    Matt, personally, settling outside Mother Earth is not my cup of tea, although I do hope it will be many others’: it sure is getting crowded here. All I want is to see this planet from a distance, during a relatively short space-walk, and I could die happy.

  • Doug Jones

    A far better analogy for manned suborbital rocket safety statistics is to (duh) look at the manned suborbital rocket safety record- the X-15. In 199 flights, one pilot was killed, and that due to multiple cascading failures in experimental systems on an experimental test flight.

    A tourist system, such as the Xerus we intend to build at XCOR, will have deliberately lower performance, simpler systems (X-15 had seven consumable fluid systems), and will be tested in non-revenue service before passengers fly. Once the bugs are wrung out, the configuration will be frozen.

    I personally intend to be aboard a large fraction of those missions (a perk of being senior test engineer), and fully expect to survive twenty or more flights. Tabarrok has succeeded in demolishing a straw man- too bad straw men are brainless.

  • Excellent point about driving. People accept mundane risks all the time, and then react disproportionatly to risks from unfamilar sources. The most obvious example in the modern world is the fear of flying. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but I’m pretty sure that flying is actually safer than driving.

    So far as space colonization goes, overcrowding is hardly the reason to go. The planet can probably support twice as many people as are currently living on it, especially when one considers the amount of unutilized surface area (think floating ocean cities.) The main reason for the desirability of off-world colonization is psychopolitical. Frontier cultures tend to have less use for centralized authority, putting a higher value on autonomy and enterprise than on regulations and stability. The longer the frontier is there, the more of an effect the frontier culture has on the civilization expanding into it. Ultimately, a frontier is the best memetic vaccine against statism; space, being a virtually inexhaustible frontier, is thus the key to winning the culture war.

  • Brock

    Alex is normally a pretty smart guy, and interesting to read, but I disagree with him here 100%. SpaceShipOne and it’s next of kin are not the Space Shuttle, no way, no how. It’s a stupid comparison.

    As for the risk, if BASE jumping, free diving, ralley racing, sky-diving, 30’+ wave surfing, and snorkling with sharks are acceptable risks, I can’t see how space tourism wouldn’t be.

    Just because space tourism would be too risky for Alex does not mean it’s too risky for business. It’s going to happen.

    /preaching to choir

  • Floating cities? I don’t think so. Just let them all go to space. And I have some specific canditates, if anyone is interested. Can you guess?

    Seriously though, the planet is overcrowded, not so much physically, as from a psychological perspective. It’s like that story with the rabbi and the goat: we need to get rid of the goat. If you are unfamiliar with that one, then think abolut having your in-laws living with you for several years, and then imagine them moving out. No matter how huge your house is, you will feel immensly relieved.

  • Alisa:

    That’s true … there’s definite psychological crappiness that comes from living cheek-by-jowl with lots of other people (and yet I, a country boy, immensely prefer big-city Toronto to small-town Ontario. Go figure.)

    Floating cities would actually be more cost-effective than space colonies, which isn’t so much an exclusionary argument against the latter as an argument than the former are boudn to happen at some point. It’s not by accident that a lot of space colony enthusiasts like the idea of ocean cities, too (think First Millenial Foundation for instance.) Given that an ocean platform is the most likely candidate for the earthside anchor of a space ladder, I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the construction of the first floating city is catalyzed by said ladder’s presence. Still, until someone actually builds one, arguing about it is academic.

    Your point about shipping certain, er, undesirables off-planet is well taken. If I’m on the same page as you, I can imagine a certain geopolitical situation that would be immensely improved if certain parties were given the option of immigrating to their own O’Neill colony.

  • Julian Taylor

    Since 1980 the United States has launched some 440 orbital launch rockets …Nearly five percent of those rockets have experienced total failure … The space shuttle has a slightly better record of safety — it was destroyed in two of 113 flights.

    Superficially, yes I’d agree with Alex’s statement. However he does not seem to take into consideration that:

    1) Many of those rockets dated from the 1950’s – and should have been thrown on the scrapheap a very long time ago.
    2) Most people regard the Spaceshuttle in awe, that an extremely intricate device should have been designed by committee and built and maintained by the cheapest contractors, all the time overseen by a government department.

    Quite frankly I am amazed that the shuttle has only had 2 major incidents so far.

  • limberwulf

    The other issue here is that the safety thing will change just as much as the cost. If there is money to be made in tourism and the things stopping that flow of money are safety issues and cost issues, then ways will be found to make space travel cheaper and safer. This has been the way of new technology throughout all history.

    Furthermore, if there are other ways of making income, as in colony founding or resource gathering from the moon or other planets, there will be a great many pioneers ready and willing to take the risk. Look at all the people willing to sail to the Americas three centuries ago. The safety rating was not exactly stellar.

    On the tourism side I would compare the early stages of space tourism with safaris. Mostly the wealthy, generally not fat guys with cameras, but certainly still classified as tourism, being not nearly so prohibitive from a skill standpoint as climbing Everest. The culture of risk aversion in the modern world is quite strong, but I think there will always be a significant segment fighting such fears. The only thing that could hamper the progression to space would be lawsuits and regulation, and those things have been the primary drag on just about everything in life.

  • Matt, I’ll say it: gives a whole new meaning to the word “transfer”, doesn’t it.

  • RAB

    Look loves, I dont give a bugger if rich tourists go into space for their own selfish reasons.WE ALL have to go into space for our own selfish reasons.I dont agree with scientists much in many areas, but one thing they have got right ,If we hang around on earth we are as dead as the dinasours.The sun will go out, either with a bang or with a whimper, but go out it will, and if we’re still here we will too.Even if we have to spoon out the very core of this planet and destroy 99% of all life(which is no more than the planet has already done to 99% of everything that has ever lived, without man’s help) then that’s what we have to do.Get out there and colonise or we die!Where’s the risk in that?

  • RAB

    Look loves, I dont give a bugger if rich tourists go into space for their own selfish reasons.WE ALL have to go into space for our own selfish reasons.I dont agree with scientists much in many areas, but one thing they have got right ,If we hang around on earth we are as dead as the dinasours.The sun will go out, either with a bang or with a whimper, but go out it will, and if we’re still here we will too.Even if we have to spoon out the very core of this planet and destroy 99% of all life(which is no more than the planet has already done to 99% of everything that has ever lived, without man’s help) then that’s what we have to do.Get out there and colonise or we die!Where’s the risk in that?

  • Confused

    Excuse me, but you guys haven’t really thought this whole ‘space colony’ thing through.

    Firstly, the idea that we will soon (next fifty years) be flying to another earth-like planet is unsupportable. There is simply no technology on the horizon that would allow this.

    Next, the only other way to colonise space is to build a Moon, Mars or space base. These things require extraordinary amounts of money and organisation to build and maintain, and will require that all residents live by very strict rules so as not to endanger the base.

    What makes you think that you would be willing to recycle more, consume less, give up guns, live cheek by jowl and submit to authority just to live on Mars? Life in such a place would be very limited.

    BTW: Of course lots of folks will pay to go into space despite the risk of death. Some people kill themselves for nicotine so why should adrenaline be any different?

  • I think even a 10% chance of total catastropic failure is pretty good compared to some of the risks we heap on ourselves daily. Whether driving (or flying) in the city (especially a German one) or getting kicked in the forehead by a mule in the country, life is spelled r-i-s-k. If we choose to sit in our living rooms and avoid what we consider risk, maybe a plane will crash on our house. AS for the character of most millionaires, I think it’s fairly safe to say that those who have recently arrived have taken plenty of risks to attain their station and it is in fact part of their very character to do so. Paying millions to take a risky space flight would be right up their alley.

  • I got a question: were the two Shuttle mishaps attributable to issues peculiar to the technology used in the Space Shuttle and not likely to be used in future manned spacecraft? That appears to be the case in the first – no o-ring problems if solid rocket boosters (deservedly) go the way of the buggy whip. I don’t recall the cause of the second mishap – could someone refresh my memory?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Good article Brian. I am a bit surprised at the fallacies in the original article, since the guys at Marginal Revolution are v.smart fellows.

    There is not a single argument about space flight and tourism that could not, with equal validity, have been applied to the early ages of aviation, the motor car, or even sail boats, for that matter.

    Richard Branson is of course a classic example of a zillionaire willing to risk his own hide for big adventure. A number of other rich men (and women) have taken the same attitude down the ages. Thank goodness such people exist, for as well as showing the way, they inspire and delight the rest of us.

    Of course, the sneerers will claim that all such folk are suffering from “arrested development”, etc, as if a sign of maturity is to approach life as a predictable, boring march towards the Grim Reaper.

  • zmollusc

    If we can dangle a length of string from the visible face of the moon towards earth and put a brick on the end, making sure that the string is short enough so the brick dangles just outside the atmosphere:
    1. The earths gravity will pull on the brick and keep the string taut.
    2. The brick will skim the outer atmosphere at about (pulls figures from ass) 1500 to 2000 mph.
    3. Any craft that can do 2000 mph at very high altitude can grab the brick and then climb to the moon.
    I will leave others to spec the string and brick. And do the calculations. And which way to the patent office?

  • Doug Jones

    Man, talk about your thread drift- space colonies, space elevators, sociology of human crowding, and the phase of the moon have little to do with the posting we’re commenting on. (zmollusc, try a google search on “space elevator” or “space tether”.)

    Tabarrok is quite simply looking at two very different fields- reusable suborbital launch vs expendable orbital launch. (Don’t try to tell me Shuttle is reusable- I’ve toured a shuttle processing facility. It’s rebuildable, at best.) The orbital record, frankly, sucks. BFD. The proven suborbital record of the X-15 is ten times better, and that was for a more complex system than is contemplated for space tourism, frequently modified, and deliberately flying high-risk experimental missions.

    Each of those risk factors is easily worth a factor of five- so it is entirely reasonable to expect a loss rate (after the initial test flights) less than 1/(199*5*5*5) or roughly 1/25000… and possibly a lot less. This is of course a vastly simplified analysis, no warrantee express or implied, your mileage may vary, kids don’t try this at home.

    Quibbling over details aside, Tabarrok made a fundamental error at the very beginning by ignoring the single most successful manned rocket program ever- which is also the most similar to the issue at hand, suborbital tourism. He pulled the 2 to 5 % chance of death out of the wrong data set, the 1-2 million dollar price apparently out of his nether regions, and his conclusions out of not just thin air, but vacuum.

    Oh, yeah, another point while I’m on a rant- Tabarrok conflates “fail” with “everybody dies, oh, woe.” In a reusable system, a failure will typically mean you just abort the mission, dump extra propellants, turn back, and land early. Lots of airliner missions fail too- including exciting events like engines falling off (many are designed to do so cleanly), cowlings ripping loose, or a turbine distintegrating in a shower of sparks… and the plane simply lands. Safely. We’re not talking about disintegrating totem poles, here- or of “strap[ping] 4 million pounds of explosive fuel onto your back in order to get lift.” Most of the space tourism vehicles on the boards are smaller than a bizjet, fer chrissakes.

    Grrrraaaar. What a putz. Enough.

  • Dale Amon

    As to the question on the STS (Shuttle). Yes, the failures were not generic space flight failures, they were quite system specific, and furthermore, specific to the immense complexity of the multipart vehicle.

    The Challenger was lost because it used solid rocket engines as boosters. It needs them because there was never a budget for liquid fueled boosters. Once you fire up a solid, you are in for the duration of the burn. Yes, you can drop them early or blow the end caps off to kill the thrust… but I doubt the shuttle would survive either in one bit. Second problem: they are so damn big they cannot be poured in one tube… so you have multiple segments bolted together and sealed with… O RINGS! Toss in the thin structures that hold them to the relatively fragile External Tank… and you have a problem. If there is a serious problem between SRB ignition and burnout, there is very little chance of any survivors.

    Columbia. She went down because thermal blankets around the front connection truss to the Orbiter keep breaking loose. I won’t go into all the issues of the non-reusable tank and such… needless to say, foam falling off in a way that can potentially damage the vehicle is shuttle specific. Now, why would a couple pounds of FOAM, even at a couple hundred miles an hour bring down a vehicle? On a 747 it probably wouldn’t even cause a dent. Birds hardly cause a dent. Birds go through engines and engines keep running until the land. But the shuttle? Well, it has this very, very high wingloading. That means it has a huge amount of energy to dissipate over a small surface, which means high temperatures. The cheap solution was tiles. The tiles are miracles of science. Unfortuneately they are a logistics nightmare and they are quite brittle and easily damaged. Next, there are the very thin leading edge Carbon-carbon bits. The don’t take a hit from foam very well. That was what brought the Columbia down. Because inches behind those C-C panels is nothing but machined aluminum. Aluminum does not last very long in a blast furnace.

    So yes, two shuttles went down due to their very nature as gorgeous, amazing, miraculous flying machines… that are the insane compromise of government departments made to fly by brilliant engineers in spite of the odds.

    No corporation would *ever* build a vehicle like that. Only a government would.

  • Daveon

    Tabarrok’s key point about space tourism sticks. Sorry. There is a niche market for it, just like climbing Everest, flyign old military jets and so forth. I still don’t believe as Rand Simberg and others do that this will boootr strap an entire industry and allow for commercial development of space.

    I might be quite wrong on this, but the assumption remains that there is a clean evoluitionary path from sub-orbital to orbital vehicles and I’m very much afraid the physics don’t support that assumption. SS1 flies at about 1100 metres/second, orbital velocity is around 7 times greater. That’s not the problem though, the problem is that to accelerate to that speed needs roughly 50 times as much energy, then, to get home safely you need to find a way to lose that energy and slow down again safely.

    We might find a way for small payloads – but eventually, if we are to do anything useful we need to assemble places to go to and things to do up there. That’s going to require heavier launching capabilities which are unlikely to come down in price. It will also require the private sector to over come a lot of the construction and maintenance problems the public sector hasn’t cracked yet.

    If Space Development is going to happen it’s going to take more than just tourism, there’s going to probably have to be several different strands happening simultaneously.

    Drexlian Nanotechnology will change all the bets, as will a space elevator. At this point, I suspect for the majority of us, a space elevator is a far more likely method of space access than any type of rocket powered vehicle.

    I was at a talk by Professor Heinz Woolf (of the Great Egg Race) many years ago, and he was fairly certain that for space access rocketry would end up being looked back on like we currently look at balooning – an acitivity for the hobbiest. I think he might be right.