Space Race: Virgin vs. Blue Origin

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How about a wager? Which comes first, the FAA’s vaunted NextGen collapses in scandal and budget overruns or someone—anyone—actually launches a space tourist without turning him or her into a cosmic cinder? Although there’s a Voodoo doll with my name on it at 800 Independence Ave. and restraint has never been a long suit of mine, I’ll go with the tourist. One can at least hope it won’t reprise the spectacle not seen since humanity deserted Max Pruss over Lakehurst.

The problem with reporting on space tourism is that you never know whether to be profoundly inspired by the sheer audacity of it or utterly appalled at the soaring lunacy. Whenever it’s discussed, I find myself looking askance at others to see if I can detect a facial tick or an eye flicker that might telegraph insanity having entered the room.

Nonetheless, we are clearly marching forward to the day when anyone with a robust bank account can book a flight up beyond the Karman line. As we say here in the south, bless their hearts and good luck to them. Of late, the MSM reporting on this field suggests there’s actually a bit of a space race going on between British wunderkind Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Amazon impresario Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin. Elon Musk is still flogging Mars between drags on a Jamaican fatty.

Anyone with even passing interest in this topic should read a long-form article just published in the New Yorker. It’s ostensibly a profile of Mark Stucky, a lead pilot of the Virgin Galactic project, but author Nicholas Schmidle seems to have found so much of interest that the piece strays into answering many of the questions we in the aviation bleachers might ask.

As of this month, Virgin Galactic has completed three powered flights of the new version of the SpaceShipTwo system, the VSS Unity. It replaces an earlier version destroyed by an inflight breakup in October 2014. Meanwhile, Blue Origin has completed eight flights of its somewhat conventional booster design and successfully landed seven of those boosters. Schmidle’s reporting gives the impression that Virgin Galactic is looking over its shoulder and worrying about being upstaged. Sound familiar? If you came of age during the 1960s, it’s reminiscent of the moon race. NASA had a name for the response the competitive urge fostered: Go fever.

Branson and company will do well to resist the pressure, considering that the company has already had two accidents and four fatalities. Stipulating that Virgin has learned from those mistakes and that it has done all that can be done to minimize risk, the space enterprise business strikes me as far riskier than the people buying those $250,000 seats might imagine. Virgin isn’t saying when they’ll launch paying passengers, but the article gives the impression that it may be sooner than later. Branson said in May that commerical flights are months not years off. Even if the company notches a dozen powered flights before taking passengers, that’s not much testing and not a broad basis to establish risk, in my view. 

As the Space Shuttle program was winding down in 2011, NASA managers—who suffered two catastrophic accidents of their own—admitted that they had vastly underestimated the program risks for multiple reasons, some related to lack of experience and data and some related to management culture. The early risk was, they said, actually close to a one in nine chance of catastrophic failure. Unfortunately, the schooling comes at a horrific tuition. The Shuttle’s demonstrated accident rate was the equivalent of 15 vehicle losses per 1000 flights. It’s hard to imagine a commercial business sustaining with even an accident or two, especially ones that leave bodies scattered across the desert. I’ll concede that the Shuttle was orders of magnitude more complex and powerful than either Virgin’s or Blue Origin’s machines, but it also had vastly more developmental resources. 

Another curious revelation in Schmidle’s article was a revival of the spam-in-the-can put down of automated flight routines popularized in Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. This evidently stems from Burt Rutan’s assertion that if space was to be cheap, it would have to be a stick and rudder undertaking. In other words, hand flown. That might have been true when he originally designed the vehicle, but in an avionics universe that has reduced the cost of an autopilot from $25,000 to $5000, is it still? Dismissing Blue Origin’s fully automated flight profile, Stucky asked what the occupants would be doing up there if no one was actually flying the vehicle. The same could be asked of Virgin’s passengers. They’re going as gawkers, not to carry out solar radiation experiments. Think of it as the planet’s most expensive selfie.

You knew I’d get to asking this: Would you pay $250,000 for such a flight and if you would, which would you prefer, Virgin or Blue Origin? What if a rich benefactor offered to pay the fare? What then? I asked my colleague Paul Dye, who edits Kitplanes magazine after a career at NASA as a senior flight director on the Shuttle and the ISS. No thanks to Blue Origin, he said; the flight profile has no appeal. And he’s not ready to get on SpaceShipTwo, either.

I’m in the same place, but perhaps for different reasons. Richard Branson has said he believes the space tourism business is worth billions because so many people will find the experience transformative. He may very well be right. But in order for that to be so, you’d have to survive it. Otherwise the transformation is from a sentient bag of bones and blood to elemental carbon bits and that’s not what I have in mind.

None of this to suggest space tourism isn’t a good idea nor that it won’t flourish. It’s just that I lack the smarts to make any kind of realistic risk judgement about whether the ride is worth it. So, I might go eventually. But you go first and send me your selfie.