Is space tourism dream just pie in the sky?

Katie Silvester


Richard Branson has vowed to continue with his aim of making his space tourism dream a reality, following the death of the co-pilot and serious injury to the pilot during a test flight of passenger rocket SpaceShipTwo (see page 6). The October crash was far from the first spacecraft tragedy – the USA alone has lost around 20 astronauts since 1964, when training accidents are included in the tally. But Virgin Galactic’s dreams of taking ordinary people, albeit rich ones, into space has captured the popular imagination. It would herald the start of space travel as entertainment – the ultimate theme park ride – as opposed to it just being a vehicle for scientific research.

The truth is that early models of all new forms of transport involve loss of life, sometimes on a rather horrifying scale. The question is whether, in today’s safety-conscious world, these sacrifices are deemed too high a price to pay. And, perhaps, whether space tourism is a worthy enough project for test pilots to risk life and limb while technical faults are ironed out. After all, ‘rockets for the rich’ will never revolutionise daily life for ordinary people the way that trains, aeroplanes and cars have done.

The early days of railways saw huge loss of life, some of which was completely avoidable, such as the hundreds of workmen who died digging the first railway tunnels without any sort of health and safety considerations. For passengers, early railway tragedies became part of a learning curve that perhaps wasn’t quite steep enough. No one knew how strong a bridge had to be to repeatedly withstand the weight of a train until it was put to the test. While many 19th-century bridges are still standing in countries all over the world, others – such as the bridge across the River Tay in Scotland, which gave way on a stormy night in 1879 with the loss of all 75 people on board the train – are not.

Early train dispatchers thought that simply allowing a set interval between one train and the next one going down the same line was a sufficient safety consideration, until a series of nasty accidents saw trains ploughing into the back of the carriages they were following that had been forced to stop unexpectedly for some reason. Today, advanced signalling systems make rail accidents very rare. But even before modern technology came along, incredibly sophisticated 19th-century mechanical signalling systems were able to ensure that signallers could not accidentally allow two trains on to the same bit of track at once.

More sophisticated safety systems could no doubt be installed on Virgin Galactic’s spacecraft, but it’s only through testing that flaws can be revealed. At the time of writing, the cause of the Virgin crash was still being investigated, but it appeared likely to have been pilot error, which saw the co-pilot unlock a braking system too early. Many safety measures on trains and aeroplanes were developed following major accidents. But sometimes, the public deem the risk to be too great and a serious accident can see promising technology quickly bite the dust. Just as some of Virgin Galactic’s pre-booked customers have been asking for refunds, Concorde was eventually shelved after one of its fleet crashed in France. Despite revolutionising transatlantic travel for three decades, passenger numbers fell after the French accident and Concorde was consigned to history, despite the crash having been caused by debris on the runway rather than any mechanical failing.

In the early 20th century, transatlantic flight was made possible by the bravery of the pilots who dared to try making the crossing by flying straight for more than 30 hours with virtually no instruments (they had to consult maps during the flight). Many died in the attempt before – and after – Charles Lindbergh succeeded in 1927. The question is whether space tourism is worth the risk. No matter how state-of-the-art modern safety systems are, there will always be an element of ‘try it and see’ with any new technology. And with space travel, the risks will always be high.

About the author:

Katie Silvester is the executive editor of Global - the International Briefing


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