Norm Augustine: Commercial Space Travel Is on the Way, but Not So Fast

Cost and safety concerns stand in the way, says the former chair of the U.S. committee on human space flight

16 November 2015

For ordinary folks, a trip to space is a voyage that has remained solely in the imagination. But several companies say that commercial space travel into orbit could be offered sometime in the next decade.

Private ventures such as Blue Origin, SpaceX, and Virgin Galactic have set their sights on sending tourists to space. Virgin Galactic, for example, wanted to start taking passengers 95 kilometers above Earth this year. But last October it received a sharp setback when one of its pilots died during a test flight of a prototype rocket. And this past June, SpaceX had a test rocket launch fail.

To gain a view of how realistic these companies’ timelines are, The Institute spoke with an expert on space travel, IEEE Life Fellow Norm Augustine. He is the former CEO of aerospace giant Lockheed Martin and past chair of the U.S. Human Space Flight Plans Committee, established in May 2009 by the White House and NASA to make recommendations for the future of human space travel. It released its report in October of that year. He was also the recipient of the 1996 IEEE Founders Medal, “for distinguished and innovative corporate and technical leadership in aerospace, electronics and the defense industry.”

SHOW ME THE MONEY

Augustine cheers on these space tourism ventures. “But I believe their schedules are unrealistic,” he says. “I hope I’m wrong.” He thinks the new private aerospace companies are overly optimistic and seriously underfunded for such a major undertaking.

While the technology exists to make space tourism viable, the funding to make it safe and affordable for travelers does not. NASA should take the lead in space exploration and science, Augustine says, which is what his committee had in mind when it recommended that NASA get out of the “trucking business”—delivering cargo, supplies, and eventually people to the International Space Station. That, he says, should be left to private companies.

“NASA should tackle more challenging, exciting, and cutting-edge projects that only it can do,” he says. “It should not compete with the private sector.”

However, more flights have to take place for ticket prices to go down. A ticket to suborbital Earth on Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, for example, costs US $250,000, and the 700 people who have already made a deposit would be staying up there for just a few minutes. Thousands of paying tourists are needed, however, for the price to go down significantly.

“If they could afford it and there’s a good chance they’ll come back alive, a lot of people would sign up,” Augustine believes.

SAFETY FIRST

But first, safer spacecraft are needed. Augustine points out that space tourism to date has only been safe enough to appeal to the most adventurous of tourists. Out of 135 space shuttle missions, there have been 2 mission losses, which is too high for public tourism (about a 1.5 percent failure rate). To make a rough comparison, whenever we fly on commercial airlines, we have a 0.000014 percent chance of dying.

Part of the reason space travel isn’t safer and less costly today is that launches take place just a few times a year.

“Every launch is a new experience, and the operators don’t have the familiarity base they have with commercial airplanes,” Augustine says. “The more launches there are, the more the engineers and operators can ensure high reliability.”

Another factor affecting space exploration—and to a lesser extent the development of commercial tourism—is the lack of opportunity for engineers to advance the engineering “state of the art.” As Augustine points out, if a mission doesn’t have scientific merit, such as studying the geology of other planets like Pluto, then scientists don’t perceive it as worthy of investment.

“While I believe science should be given first priority by NASA, one of the major problems with this thinking is that it doesn’t recognize that engineers also need to learn,” he says. “They have to learn how to send objects into orbit inexpensively, how to assemble complex structures in space, how to refuel while in orbit, and more. These tasks may have no direct scientific research benefits, but they are essential to future endeavors in space science, exploration, and even tourism.”

THE TIMELINE

The committee recommended that NASA support commercial companies for transportation to low-Earth orbit for several reasons. The main reason was to permit NASA to focus its resources on scientific and exploration missions that entail costs and risks beyond what is acceptable to most commercial enterprises. And startups, in particular, bring a fresh perspective and are optimistic about their chances for success.

This strategy would let NASA free up its resources for bigger-payoff, higher-risk endeavors. Augustine also notes that established aerospace companies may be more deliberate than startups, and there’s a reason for that: “They’ve learned the hard way the number of details that have to be addressed to make space vehicles work reliably. The devil is in the details.”

He estimates that true adventurers of the type who are willing to risk their lives, like those who first climbed Mount Everest or trekked to the North Pole, could indeed make the trip to suborbital Earth by the end of the decade. He predicts, however, that it will be another 25 years before orbital flight will be available to a significant section of the public.

THE NEW NORMAL

Once space travel is safe and affordable, Augustine believes a large number of tourists will want to go. He expects the first commercial space travelers to fly into Earth’s orbit and stay there for a day or two. They’ll experience weightlessness and probably listen to lectures, take photographs, and look through telescopes while they are up there. “They’ll also get the opportunity to experience motion sickness,” he adds. The tourism that is relatively commonplace today—visiting Antarctica and the North Pole, rafting the Grand Canyon, even climbing Mount Everest—would have been unthinkable a century ago, he notes. Much later, space trips will probably include circumnavigating the moon and, eventually, even a visit to Mars.

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