Private rockets to space… and the Halloween accident

International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti answer questions posed by reporters last month (courtesy of Nasa)

International Space Station Expedition 42 Commander Barry Wilmore and Flight Engineer Samantha Cristoforetti answer questions posed by reporters last month (courtesy of Nasa)

On October 31, a deadly high-altitude accident destroyed the SS2 space plane. The test flight had been conducted by one of several private spaceship companies founded by multi-billionaires and receiving taxpayer dollars. A bewildering error by the co-pilot, who died, made the experimental ship disintegrate after being dropped by its mother plane at 45,000 feet. It was a disastrous setback.

The space companies are attempting different things. One has already successfully sent unmanned freight supply ships to the International Space Station (ISS). A couple of others, led by people like Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen and Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, are striving for space tourism. Branson has received 700 deposits toward the $250,000 ticket price for his “trip to the edge of space.”


I know what you’re thinking: Why are any tax dollars being spent toward helping the idle rich have a few minutes of fun? It’s not a bad question. Still, Allen’s company, Scaled Composites, is in the midst of a three-tiered program that he says represents a metaphorical staircase out of this world. Tier One means suborbital flight to an altitude of 62 miles. Attaining actual Earth orbit would be Tier Two. Anything farther away, like the Moon, is Tier Three. This recent fatal breakup involves a craft of the first tier. The program has already suffered multiple delays, despite the company’s periodic assurances that its space tourism is “just around the corner.”

I wonder how many of those folks who forked over a quarter-million bucks realize what they will be getting when it finally flies. In addition to the considerable risk, that altitude – though claimed to be “the edge of space” – is still far below where auroras glow and meteors zoom. From that height the Earth does not appear round, nor is there any perceptible loss of gravity. Indeed, if any building were that tall and you stood on the roof, you’d feel the same sense of weight as you do at the gym.

The company intends to get around that inconvenience by making the craft fly in an arc for a half-minute, which would simulate weightlessness. This is not difficult. I could make my passengers briefly feel weightless in my own plane, if I were in a sadistic mood and didn’t mind the screaming. Scaled Composites’ tourist flight will perform the maneuver so that customers can say that they escaped Earth’s gravity: totally bogus.

Even getting to that 62-mile height is not easy if any degree of safety is important, which it is. Still, the craft must only attain a speed of 2,000 miles per hour, which is not much more than the Concorde cruised at. To reach low Earth orbit, by comparison, requires 17,000 miles per hour. It’s a huge jump.

The other big plan announced by two private space companies is the mining of asteroids. The idea is to reach a near-Earth rock the size of a small mountain, of the variety that has rich metallic ores. The ship would attach rockets or a towline and haul it back to Earth orbit, where the minerals can be mined and returned to the surface.

Recently, the companies announced that they’ve changed their target motherlode to ice rather than minerals, since nothing in space is more precious than water. However, the experts we’ve interviewed at Astronomy magazine tell us that it’s very hard to imagine this mining scenario making any kind of economic sense.

Privatizing space enterprises may or may not be a good idea. And it may or may not reap any benefits for most of us. But as the Halloween accident demonstrated, it will be a while before we start commercially romping at even the edges of space.

Perhaps we should collectively decide what we really want to do. The ISS is a reality, and it’s inspirational that humans orbit our world for peaceful pursuits. However, the practical benefits of expensively keeping people 250 miles above the ground, one-thousandth the distance to the Moon, is a little harder to discern. Even space fanatics like myself cannot name the ISS’s current crew or the experiments being performed up there this month. With Mars decades away, and no other planet offering conditions that could allow manned visitation, we are in an odd period when it comes to human space travel.

Tourism for the ultra-rich? Impractical asteroid mining? Circling round and round our planet in low orbit? It’s not at all clear what we should be doing.


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