Space tourism: Is it safe?

The space age may be entering a new phase, but the issue of safety continues to weigh against ambitious ideas about manned travel in large numbers, particularly tourism.

"We do not know where this journey will end, yet we know this: human beings are headed into the cosmos." With these words, the US president, George W. Bush, launched in January his ambitious vision for a new US programme for human space exploration. A new manned spaceship for a trip to the moon by 2015, not just to visit but to spend time there, would open the way for manned missions “to worlds beyond”, including to Mars.

The president’s announcement followed hot on the heels of one from the Russian Space Agency (Rosaviacosmos), that it was planning to send two civilian “space tourists” and a professional cosmonaut to the International Space Station aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket in 2005. Moreover, the Soyuz trip will be the first privately funded manned space launch ever.

Space enthusiasts are delighted at this flurry of renewed interest, and the fact that China has succeeded in sending a person into orbit merely heightens the stakes and intensifies the competition. Even the Europeans are locking heads and planning a strategy to get to Mars in the coming half-century.

But to see in these initiatives the dawn of a space tourism age would be making a leap of faith. True, space’s return to the top of the international policy agenda has to be welcomed, not least for its commercial potential (see box). On the other hand, why has it taken so long? Space exploration began over 40 years ago, yet only three countries – and China’s case is as yet unproven – appear to have the capability to put humans in space. And none has been able to promote space visits on a sustainable, commercial scale.

The US programme intends to tackle this, though we must be realistic. The budget announced to get the programme off the ground will be high. According to the White House, most of the funding needed for the new programme will come from reallocating US$11 billion of NASA’s current five-year budget of US$86 billion, and adding another billion dollars over five years. While some commentators say this will not be enough, expense is only one problem to consider. The real tricky issue is safety.

The tragic break up of the space shuttle Columbia on 1 February 2003 was a reminder of how dangerous space travel still is, despite 40 years of development. In fact, space travel is much more dangerous than any other form of transportation, including driving a car. In the US manned space programme, there have been 17 fatalities in 732 person flights. That means an astonishing 2,320 deaths per 100,000 passengers, which is 45,000 times more dangerous than flying in a commercial airplane. Put another way, two space shuttles have crashed in 113 departures, which is a 1.8% failure rate. This would be unacceptable for commercial airplanes, which see an average of about 0.4 accidents per 100,000 departures per year in the US.

In other words, space travel, while desirable, is just too hazardous to become a major tourist activity. It is even more dangerous than so-called “extreme” sports, such as scuba diving or sky diving.

Russia has had a better success rate. In fact, it has not had a manned vehicle failure board its Soyuz rocket since 1971. This is a result of the Russian tendency to build simple systems using reliable “off-the-shelf” components, which, together with low labour costs, contribute to producing one of the cheapest launchers on the market.

Cheap is a relative term however; the price of an unmanned Soyuz is approximately US$35 million, while a manned vehicle costs much more as a result of the complex life support and atmospheric re-entry systems. How can one of the cheapest launch vehicles in the world still be so prohibitively expensive?

The main problem with the Soyuz is that none of it is reusable; even the smallpassenger capsule that returns to Earth is not reused. Most experts agree that a truly increased human presence in space will only be achieved by combining total or near-total reusability with a quick turnaround time and easy inspectability. In the late 1960s, after its successful moon missions, NASA began to focus on creating a reusable launch vehicle (RLV) that would drastically reduce the cost of space travel. This goal, which manifested itself in the creation of the Space Shuttle, has not been reached. Ironically, the Space Shuttle is the most expensive launch vehicle in the world (estimates range from US$350 to US$500 million per flight), even though it has reusable parts.

Why does the Space Shuttle cost so much? For a start, it requires a veritable army of ground personnel to inspect the vehicle after each flight and prepare it for the next one. It is only reusable after the vehicle has essentially been taken apart and reassembled. The thermal protection system alone takes 30,000 people-hours (3,750 working days) to inspect, refurbish and reinstall between flights. This labour intensive process is one reason why the US space shuttle fleet has never flown more than nine times in any one year. This is far too few flights for a large tourism market.

Assuming there is a demand, just how big (or small) might that tourism market be? First of all, manned space flight is beyond the pockets of most ordinary people. There have been two space tourists, both multimillionaires, reportedly paying some US$20 million to fly aboard the Russian Soyuz rocket and spend 10 days aboard the International Space Station. There are not very many people in the world who are capable of paying this much. In fact, the market would only be about 100,000 people. And then, only a small percentage – experts say about 1% – of that number would be willing to pay for a space flight.

Launch costs have remained essentially stagnant since the beginning of space flight in the late 1950s, but what would the market result be if ticket prices dropped to US$1 million per launch into orbit? At this price, the market is much larger and using the same assumptions as above, there would be approximately 72,500 paying participants. A lot, but certainly not enough for a mass revolution. Not everyone shares this scepticism. Take the X Prize foundation, which is seen by many as the bellwether of space tourism. The foundation will award US$10 million to the first team which builds a vehicle capable of taking three passengers to a suborbital altitude of 100 km and repeating the feat within a week. Perhaps this more open, competitive, model could achieve progress at a fraction of current costs. Indeed, some speculate that such ventures could open the way to sub-orbital joyrides at around US$100,000 a ticket. But there are obvious dangers, not least of which is the risk of corner cutting on safety to make that fast turnaround and ultimately running the risk of another disaster.

Cosmic cocktail

The real problem facing space tourism is not any one of the issues described above. Rather, it is all of them blended together: cost, safety and market-size. The more safety ingredients you add to the cocktail, like back-up systems or escape options, the more expensive it becomes. In fact, due to the additional complexity of the overall system, some argue that increasing spacecraft reliability from 96% to 99% would be as expensive as the reliability increase from 80% to 96%. This leaves space tourism entrepreneurs with a bit of a chicken and egg problem: how to realise affordable launches that are safe at the same time.

There are a number of steps that government and private space capitalists could take, though. First, they should stop thinking of space as a place for tourism, at least initially. The focus should be on other commercial endeavours, with tourism developing as a bonus. After all, in the automobile, railway and aviation industries, commercial needs drove mass production and cost reduction, which eventually paved the way for tourism.

And there are plenty of commercial incentives for going into space, in particular the prospect of harnessing valuable resources, like Helium-3 on the moon, as well as the engineering and technical spinoffs of the R&D needed to get there. The possible discovery of water on Mars could pave the way for human exploration and eventual exploitation, since with water we can produce oxygen needed to breathe and hydrogen for rocket fuel.

Second, technology must of course be improved, so that spacecraft are developed with the same safety and reliability characteristics as today’s commercial airplanes. Research is going on throughout the world, but funding is low and much of the technology being developed is just an evolution of what is commonplace now. More effort may be needed to make the breakthrough that could be revolutionary. However, with NASA already having to cut the budget for the Next Generation Launch Technology program to fund the agency’s new exploration programme, it remains to be seen whether the funding to make such a breakthrough will be there.

Finally, spacecraft design procedures must be changed so that inspectability and turnaround time requirements are satisfied. Also, modifications to allow some in-flight repair should be considered. Ideally, a spacecraft should be designed with parts that can easily and quickly be changed. Without this, a substantial tourism market might not get off the ground simply because vehicles will be unable to fly frequently enough. Nor would investing in a much bigger airline-type fleet be an automatic solution, since inspection times would still be long and costs too high.

With all the difficulties of space travel, why are private investors so interested in the commercial prospects of space, especially given the notoriously high development costs and reputation for time overruns and failures? A need to expand may be the simple answer, and government support in partnership with private entrepreneurs may one day bring space’s full commercial potential within reach of holidaymakers.

Until then, there may be more modest opportunities on the horizon. Take the US Department of Defense’s Falcon programme to develop a hypersonic bomber by the year 2025. This would have considerable spin-off potential. Coast-to-coast travel in the US would take 30 minutes, while Sydney would be just over an hour away from Paris and London. The vehicles developed in the Falcon programme could be modified to travel through the upper reaches of the atmosphere and allow people to experience weightlessness from microgravity, while getting from A to B. Hypersonic planes will cut travel times by 90%, not just the 50% allowed by the recently decommissioned Concorde. Also, hypersonic planes will have better fuel efficiency for a wider global reach, and by flying at twice the height of Concorde, they will emit less of the noise pollution that was such a major obstacle to Concorde’s expansion.

Floating around on a hypersonic plane might not sound as exciting a prospect as heading away into outer space. But cost and safety mean that, while space exploration must continue, for the general public, the sky will probably be the limit for a while yet.

References

World Wealth Report (2003), Merrill Lynch and Cap Gemini Ernst & Young. Augustine, N.R.(1997), Augustine’s Laws, 6th Edition, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics.

Leonard, D. (2002), “New Thermal Protection for Reusable Rockets”, Space.com, www.space.com/businesstechnology/technology/armor_tps_020130-1.html. 

©OECD Observer No 242, March 2004




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