Space travel *is* rocket science

Two disasters in one week naturally leads us to wondering if private space exploration is safe.

Well, no.

It is rocket science.

And it isn’t safe.

But it is wonderful and will be safe enough soon enough.

11/1 – Marginal Revolution – Space Tourism Still Not Ready for Flight Ten years ago Alex Tabarrok described the trend in total failure rate of rocket launches, which is defined as either complete loss or going so far off course as to be useless. In the 1960s the failure rate was an astronomical 12%. In the ‘70s it was 5.2%. Writing in ’04, he said that failure rate since 1980 was under 5%.

One commenter pointed out the Shuttle had 2 total failures of 135 launches, or a 1.5% failure rate.

Another commenter points out that the failure rate for high altitude mountaineering is in the same ranges as being discussed for rockets. Every year thousands of people ‘pays their money and takes their chances’ with mountain climbing.

The point stands. Rocket science is difficult and dangerous. At the infancy of the private space exploration effort, the tech isn’t ready for tourists.

But it will be someday. I’m guessing soon.

11/3 – Megan McArdle, BloombergView – Space Tourism Will Survive Virgin Galactic Crash – Taking a rocket ride into space is dangerous.

So is climbing Mt. Everest. Reportedly, 1 out of every 64 people trying to climb Mt. Everest die in the attempt. Yet large numbers of people spend huge amount of time preparing, lots of time in the assent, and thousands of dollars in the effort.

That is just a sliver safer that getting on a space shuttle. With 2 Loss of Crew (a new phrase I’ve learned) in 135 launches, that means there is a 1 in 67 chance of LoC on the shuttle.

Climb Mt. Everest? Odds of dying are 1 in 64. Get on a shuttle? Odds are 1 in 67.

Private space flight isn’t ready for passengers, obviously. One humongous indicator is that test pilots are the only people on board. That the tech is in the exquisitely hazardous stage is why we use test pilots.

Eventually private space shots will be ready for all the tourists willing to pay the ticket price and willing to take the risk.

My opinion? To quote Glenn Reynolds, faster please!

10/31 – Popular Mechanics – Analysis: Why Companies Such as Virgin Galactic and Orbital Take Risks an Endure Losses – Two reasons. First, there are astronomical payoffs to commercial space flight. Second, the cost is currently also astronomical. Article says that after 135 flights, the Space Shuttle still cost $25,000 a pound to get stuff into orbit.

The company that cuts that cost by a factor of 10 or 100 will make a humongous fortune. Until someone else figures out how to cut the cost in half yet again.

To recap, here are a few of the dotcom billionaires, who have put their money on the table:

Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch Systems, as well as companies founded by businessmen like Richard Branson, who created Virgin Galactic,

If I had a few billion in the bank, I’d be in the game too. There’s only a few billion reasons I’m not on that list of space pioneers.

The article mentions that six people died trying to fly across the Atlantic before Charles Lindberg won the $25,000 price for doing so.

I recall three astronauts (Gus Grissom, Edward White, and Roger Chaffee) died on Apollo 1. Should we have stopped the Apollo program because we lost so many highly skilled test pilots? Three years later, Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin walked on the moon.

Pushing out the boundaries of travel is dangerous. And astoundingly rewarding.

Every one of us benefits every day from the miracles of aviation and space flight.

The payoff from space travel is phenomenal. Keep pushing onward ladies and gentlemen!

11/5 – Popular Science – Orbital Sciences Is Replacing The Soviet-Era Engine Suspected In Its Rocket Explosion – Current understanding is the cause of the explosion was a failure in the Russian (Ukrainian??) built engine that is a 40-year-old design. I don’t know how many decades ago the engine was built. Replacing them with current production engines sounds like a good idea to me.

The private sector is already adapting. There are several (private sector) options. If this was a government operation, everything would be on hold for a year or three. There wouldn’t be another flight by Orbital Sciences until well after all the congressional hearings were finished.

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