Let’s face it: by any rational measure so-called space tourism is a preposterously frivolous idea. Nonetheless, hundreds of thrill-seekers were willing to pay around $2,300 a minute for the ride as soon as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture was launched in 2005. The first passenger-carrying flight was supposed to happen 10 years ago, in 2007. It slipped to 2009, 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013…now…maybe… next year.
But if once it seemed like an idea whose time would never come (leaving aside for the moment the issue of whether it ever should) Jeff Bezos and his Blue Origin team—not Branson—now seems more than ever likely to be the first to deliver.
The two projects could not be more different. One, Galactic, is a hybrid of rocket and flying machine, the other, Bezos’s New Shepard, is purely ballistic, a rocket ride followed by descent in a six-passenger capsule under three parachutes.
Bezos has been testing his system in the remote tundra of west Texas, with five virtually flawless flights between November 2015 and October 2016.. Moreover, he has so much confidence in his approach that after several years of under-the-radar development he has become uncharacteristically boosterish.
Whereas Branson over the years staged numerous junkets for the media in which success was claimed to be imminent, this April Bezos staged his first preview of the ride on Blue Shepard at the annual Space Symposium in Colorado Springs with the warning that, “It’s a mistake to race to a deadline when you’re talking about a flying vehicle, especially one that you’re going to put people on.”
Notwithstanding that caveat, it was a spectacular show. His 50-foot launch rocket was trucked from his base at Van Horn in Texas, a journey that required 16 hours of restricted roads to clear the way. And Bezos himself appeared inside a full-size mockup of the capsule peering out through one of its outsize windows.
The six passengers will sit in recliners aligned with those windows, strapped in for the ascent and then allowed to unstrap and enjoy around four minutes of weightless floating in the capsule before once more buckling up for the descent and re-entry when the g-force will be at its greatest, more than 5g—that is five times the gravitational force felt on earth. There will be no pilot on board: passengers will be overseen and guided by a flight director on earth.
Although the rocket and capsule combination mimics the dynamics of the NASA space program that took men to the moon, Blue Shepard blasts aloft on rockets that are re-usable, a virtue that Bezos has stressed. Once free of the capsule the rocket makes its own controlled return to earth, braking at the last minute to a soft landing. The capsule, descending under the parachutes, also makes a soft landing, slowed to 3 mph by small braking rockets.
In less than a year of testing, Bezos has been able to do something that Branson has failed to do in more than a decade: demonstrate proof of concept.
And now it is the Virgin Galactic concept itself that is in question, the use of two vehicles, a mother ship and a smaller spaceship slung under it. The mother ship releases the spaceship at around 40,000 feet and, in theory, the spaceship’s own rocket motor pushes it past the technical boundary between the stratosphere and space called the Karman Line, at around 62 miles high.
The New Shepard test flights have already achieved that—reaching a height of 63.2 miles. The highest altitude reached so far by Virgin Galactic is 13.5 miles, one fifth of the target.
The Virgin Galactic concept was the brainchild of Burt Rutan, a brilliant and pioneering designer who had his own company that worked like a skunkworks, Scaled Composites (since sold to Northrop Grumman) based in Mojave, California, where all the test flights take place.
The most troublesome feature of the Galactic vehicle, SpaceShip2, has proved to be a Rutan innovation called feathering that is deployed to slow the descent. It works like a shuttlecock in a game of Badminton, pitching the vehicle into an acute nose-up attitude to work as an aerodynamic brake.
During a test flight in 2013 the feathering device failed to work according to plan and caused a tail stall. SS2 dropped like a stone until the pilots, after a struggle, regained control. Then, in 2014, it was the cause of the program’s biggest setback, a crash that killed one pilot and seriously injured the other.
SS2 was 13 seconds into its rocket burn at a speed of 850mph when one of the pilots, Mike Alsbury, prematurely activated the feathering system and the vehicle was ripped apart. Alsbury was killed instantly but the other pilot, Pete Siebold, had a miraculous escape. He was thrown clear, still buckled in his seat. Although injured he managed to break free from the seat and his parachute opened automatically at 14,000 feet.
An investigation by the National Transportation Safety Board found a number of flaws in the safety procedures, involving both pilot training and equipment. At their insistence the design of the feathering system was changed to include a lock preventing its deployment until it was safe to activate.
In a test flight a few weeks ago the new Galactic spaceship tested the revised feathering system without mishap. But this test was carried out during a glide to earth from the mothership, not after a supersonic flight powered by the rocket engine.
And this rocket engine is the second apparent weakness in the Rutan concept: experts question whether it is powerful enough to take a fully-loaded spaceship to the Karman Line at 62 miles.
An expert on the design of space vehicles told the Daily Beast that Galactic’s choice of a winged vehicle, not a capsule, made structural weight a critical issue. The size and therefore the power of the rocket engine is restricted by the need to integrate it into the profile of the vehicle. And this, in turn, had an impact on safety.
It was impossible to include an emergency ejection system for the cockpit and the passenger cabin because it would add too much weight.
All of this emphasizes what the NTSB stressed in its report on the 2014 disaster: SS2 is essentially an experimental vehicle that still has to cross some critical thresholds safely – like sustained rocket power to the target height – before the Federal Aviation Administration could even consider the next step, granting an operating license to carry passengers.
The FAA is responsible for “overseeing, monitoring, licensing and regulating the public safety of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry.” They issued a set of “recommended practices for human space flight” that included a specific section on escape mechanisms in the case of emergencies:
“The system should provide the capability to abort, escape or both, during pre-flight and ascent – escape includes safely returning the occupants to Earth in a portion of the space flight system normally used for re-entry and landing.”
(Galactic is breaking no laws or safety regulations by dispensing with that: “recommended practices” are just that: recommended.)
In contrast, the New Shepard capsule uses the same principle that NASA pioneered on its space program, an independent rocket engine in the capsule designed to blast it clear if the launch rocket fails, followed by deployment of the three parachutes to return it to earth safely from any height.
The system was successfully demonstrated on the fifth test flight, but not in a way that replicated the moment of greatest danger: an explosion on the launch pad. Instead, the capsule was blown free of the rocket during the ascent. The company’s own commentary to the video showing the test described what the experience would have been for occupants of the capsule as “pretty exhilarating.” That was something of an understatement. But being hurled free of a fireball during what is called a launch abort would be a far more traumatic experience.
Bezos won’t say when he thinks New Shepard will be ready to take paying passengers. Two new capsules are being readied for another round of flight tests. Flights carrying specially trained volunteers are planned for 2018. The FAA recommendations say that “space flight participants should be free to make decisions about their individual risk” and that “within 12 months of their flight each space flight participant should consult a physician, trained or experienced in aerospace medicine, to ascertain the medical risks…”
Nor has Bezos announced the price of a ride: “We’ll probably start taking payments and selling tickets when we’re closer to commercial operations.”
The New Shepard rides will last between 10 and 12 minutes. A Galactic flight would take two hours, a large part of that spent under the mothership until it reaches launch altitude. The price per passenger is $250,000. (The original plan was to have a fleet of spaceships able to make several flights a day. Right now there is only the one vehicle being tested.)
Bezos has said that he sells about $1 billion in Amazon stock every year to finance Blue Origin. To borrow from Citizen Kane, since he has a net worth of $84 billion, at that rate he could be bankrupt in 84 years. (The funding of Virgin Galactic is a lot fuzzier – estimates are that the program has cost around $1 billion so far and little of that has come from Branson himself.)
As he did with Amazon, Bezos entered the space business with a long view. He saw that the future of the space industry was passing from the era of state-funded programs to private contractors, and he has steadily built a body of expertise that will be proprietary to him, giving him ownership of everything from the engines to the parachutes.
Technically, New Shepard is the precursor of the much more ambitious New Glenn, Blue Origin’s multi-stage rocket program that will launch astronauts and satellites into orbit. (The Virgin Galactic design is an evolutionary dead end – it cannot be scaled up for orbital flight.) As he did with Amazon, Bezos has always had a very clear-eyed idea of what it would cost to get into the business, of the technical challenges, and of the time needed to master them.
For him, space tourism itself is unlikely ever to be more than a sideline. It will never be a serious money-making business. Because of the cost, it will only ever be accessible to a few. Throughout history, from at least the time hedonism became a secular religion for the ancient Greeks, societies topped by a privileged and leisured elite have exhibited a taste for expensive thrills, expressed in the philosophy of “give me sensation, and then again sensation.”
In the 20th century that want was met most spectacularly by turning the ascent of Mount Everest into a tourist industry. For this year’s climbing season more than 500 permits were issued and 10 people have already died, twice the number for 2016. The high fatality rate is no deterrent.
There is, at least, a kind of aesthetic reward to be had—for those capable of aesthetic feelings—from both climbing Everest and sitting on top of a rocket on a journey to the edge of space. The view of earth is stunning and, quite literally, unforgettable.
But the reality is that neither experience is a match for the awe felt by the Apollo astronauts who got the first view of Earth as a marbled blue jewel emerging from the horizon of the moon.
That experience conveyed, as nothing else could, a sense of our planet’s unique isolation and vulnerability as well as of its beauty. Somehow space tourism doesn’t rise to that level. It seems more like an exercise in gratuitous technology, the assignment of substantial skills and resources to the fleeting thrills of personal trophy collection.