Stop Comparing Virgin Galactic to the Airline Industry: Space Tourism is an Extreme Sport

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Last week was a bad week for those who work in, or simply support, the space industry. There were two separate, terrible incidents that occurred within four days of each other. The first was the failed Anatares rocket launch, which was sending experiments and supplies to the International Space Station. The second was the failed SpaceShipTwo test flight, a space plane designed to bring tourists into space, which resulted in the death of one of the two pilots on board.

These failures are an important reminder that space exploration is by no means routine and is an inherently risky endeavor. Some are quick to compare these types of failures to the early failures of the aviation industry. They remind the public that early aviation also endured many crashes, but today air travel is now safer than driving a car.

However, this comparison is a flawed one, and encourages overly optimistic expectations of space tourism. This is because transportation to space is fundamentally different than airline transportation.

Throughout history, space exploration has typically been achieved on a rocket which had a lifetime of one flight. As in, use the rocket once and throw it away. Space tourist, Richard Garriott, has said, this provides “few opportunities to expose and work out the flaws in the general system design, much less in the manufacture of an individual rocket. While rocket components are tested individually and again once assembled, there is no stress quite like the actual launch itself to ultimately see if it's all working fully.”

Only recently has the concept of reusable launch vehicles been explored. But even after reusable space planes like SpaceShipTwo are perfected, we cannot expect them to ever reach the level of safety and repeatability seen in the commercial airline industry which sees over 100,000 airline flights per day.

Because of this, it’s time we change the way we think about space tourism. Flying to space is not an overpriced Disney ride. This is an extreme sport akin to BASE jumping or climbing Mt. Everest. And with all extreme sports, those who choose to participate take on a certain level of risk.

It is estimated that 1 out of 20 people have died from BASE jumping. Similarly, Mt. Everest climbers have an estimated 1.5% chance of dying on average. It is too soon to determine the respective probabilities of death and injury in space tourism, but one thing is for sure: it is not likely to be zero.

Because there is little preparation required to fly on board SpaceShipTwo, it can be difficult for many to view space tourism as a sport at all.

Surprisingly, the baseline medical requirements for commercial space travel are lenient—and that’s true whether you’re taking a “suborbital” flight that barely leaves the earth’s atmosphere (as Virgin Galactic and XCOR’s flights will do) or going all the way to the International Space Station (a trip offered by a company called Space Adventures).
— Wall Street Journal

That doesn't seem like the necessary prerequisite for an extreme sport, does it? Don't let that fool you. Space exploration is not for the faint of heart. In fact, even the space shuttle had a flight failure rate of 1.5%.

Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson says that he still plans to be on his company’s first flight. But Branson is a known adventure and thrill seeker who made the first trans-Atlantic flight in a balloon, nearly died from a solo skydiving incident, and arrived at this own wedding ceremony hanging from a helicopter.

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Are the other 800 pre-paid customers, including many celebrities, ready to take on the risk that comes along with space exploration? Justin Bieber, one of the ticket holders, doesn't really strike me as the type who would BASE jump or climb Mt. Everest, but perhaps he's more adventurous than we know.

Of course space exploration will get safer over time. Like all technical projects, further tests will allow engineers to try new things, figure out what works, and improve their design.  But will it ever be as safe as flying in a commercial airplane? Not likely, and it’s time we stop holding space tourism to such expectations. This is an extreme sport. And with all extreme sports, there is a certain level of danger inherent to the activity. In fact, that’s part of what makes them so appealing. 

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