A space journalist looks at Richard Branson’s new autobiography


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Link here. He finds much of what he reads, especially involving Virgin Galactic, to be seriously wanting.

Expect a more detailed review in the coming days, but essentially Branson’s dishonest hyperbole shines through.

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6 comments

  • Edward

    I think that Doug’s assessment of the dangerous nature of spaceflight is correct. So far, the only manned spacecraft that have not killed at least one of its crews have only flown –manned — in space fewer than a dozen times.

    Vostok (6 flights) and Voskhod (2); Mercury (6); Gemini (10); Apollo’s daughter ship, the Lunar Module (9); Shenzhou (6); SpaceShipOne (3); various space stations (1 flight each space station).

    Apollo and the X-15 have flown men fewer that a dozen times into space and have each also killed a crew. Soyuz, with scores of flights, killed a crew on its maiden voyage. Even SpaceShipTwo has killed a crew member before it made it to space. A small number of flights is not a guarantee of a safe spacecraft.

    SpaceShipTwo and New Shepard (as well as the late Lynx) are intended to fly many dozens of times, so they are likely to each kill at least one crew (passengers), and maybe more, before they figure out how to do it right.

    I have no doubt that SpaceShipTwo, New Shepard, Dragon, and Starliner will each kill a crew before they are retired. (I expect Orion to fly very few flights.)

    I think that a problem we face is that too many people expect spaceflight to skip the learning curve that aviation had to go through before becoming such a safe mode of transportation. Instead, we have a new set of hazards to face, and the Space Shuttle and SpaceShipTwo have shown us that we have not yet learned all the lessons. The scores of people who dropped from Virgin Galactic’s manifest gives me some hope that people have some realization of the danger involved.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GXbdJ3kyVyU (7 minutes; Bill Whittle: “The Deal”)

    Compare commercial aviation safety record, 100,000,000 flights without a single fatality, with that of the recently retired Space Shuttle, which flew 135 flights with 14 fatalities. Yes, obviously spaceflight is an order of magnitude, maybe two orders of magnitude, more difficult and dangerous, but the reason that we have cheap, affordable, and safe air transportation today and no space transportation is that we were serious about air travel — serious enough to pay the price in blood and money — and we’re not serious about space. My friend and noted space expert, Rand Simberg summed it up perfectly when he said that we’ll know we’re serious about space travel when we have entire cemeteries full of dead astronauts who lost their lives showing us how to do it right, just like Gann’s generation did, because that’s the deal. That’s what it costs.

    As with civil aviation, we learned from these events that wishful thinking is a poor substitute for good engineering.

    wayne linked, recently and in another post, to a video on the Scout rocket in which, in the early days, they also learned the lesson that good engineering and quality control worked better than wishful thinking.

    Musk learned this lesson about engineering and quality control in the early days of Tesla, when in order to correct a major problem they had to recall all the cars that they had sold. He seems to have brought that lesson with him to the Falcon but is still learning at least process lessons, if not more engineering lessons.

    Not only are we still trying to learn how to design, build, and operate manned spacecraft safely, but we are still learning these lessons for space suits. A couple of years ago, one suit had a fluid leak, which threatened to drown the astronaut, if the water had migrated from the back of his head to his nose and mouth.

    Air travel is finally ready for prime time, but space travel is not. The real question to ask is whether the public and congress are serious enough about space travel to allow the expensive lessons to be learned or if the blood lost to the terrible lessons learned will cause them to prematurely put a stop to the whole thing. Do we think that space is worth dying for or are we going to just rot here on Earth?

  • Anthony Domanico

    Edward,

    I share your concern that perhaps congress and the public will choose to shut down space travel if we start losing a lot of lives. I don’t see a reason why we would have to pay with a huge amount of lives to open this new frontier like those pursuing the aviation frontier did. It’s a fallacy to conclude that it was like that in aviation’s early history so the future in space must be bound to the same price in blood.

    One reason for my opinion is although, relatively speaking, we don’t have a lot of experience in space travel, we have developed significantly in engineering and science since the days before large scale air travel. A lot of lessons paid for in blood from aviation are directly applicable to space travel.

    I’m not saying there won’t be deaths from space travel, that would be an absurd notion not worthy of a Behind The Black fan. I do believe that there will be fewer deaths relative to the energies involved with space travel compared to those in air travel.

    Is this a position of naive hope? I hope not. Regardless if it is, space as a pursuit is still important enough to justify the lives lost. As long as people are aware of the risks and the providers can truly claim the passengers are able to give informed consent then hopefully the government and the mob mentality will stand aside and let progress happen.

  • Edward

    Anthony Domanico,
    You wrote: “It’s a fallacy to conclude that it was like that in aviation’s early history so the future in space must be bound to the same price in blood.

    Maybe, but the environment is different, the times spent “in the air” longer, and as with aircraft, you can’t just pull a faulty spacecraft over to the side of the road and call the auto club. The good news is that our space stations have operated for long periods of time without fatality, despite several attempts (such as the previously-mentioned swimming-pool version of a space suit, an O2 generator fire, collision by spacecraft, etc.).

    The bad news is that each space program seems to be learning the same lessons that other space programs have already learned (e.g. Japan’s Venus probe, Akatsuki, burned off its main thruster’s bell in a way that other space programs were already familiar with).

    As with aircraft, we will try new technologies and techniques, and these will lead to tragic lessons (e.g. SpaceShipTwo’s shuttlecock feathering system technology and SpaceX’s surprise pad explosion due to a technique used to densify propellant). As with aircraft, the processes unique to spacecraft will have to be worked out. If SpaceX has 100 person colony ships early in spaceflight, then we should expect that losses will be larger than those of aircraft, early in the history of spaceflight.

    As with Early European attempts at colonization, we may experience some lost colonies due to unexpected catastrophic problems. Even the early space colonies will be hazardous until we learn how to design, build, and operate them.

    I will end with more good news: we have already learned a lot from unmanned spacecraft, a luxury that Gann’s generation did not have. We have probably saved at least one crew for each probe or satellite that we lost, as the lessons learned the hard way on these spacecraft do not have to be learned the hard way on manned spacecraft. Plus there are several lessons that transition easily from aircraft to spacecraft, such as man/machine interaction, accident reduction techniques, and lightweight-yet-strong materials and design-optimization technologies. The company Made In Space may be providing us with the ability to make spare parts on the fly (so to speak), which was not an option for aircraft in trouble. A spacecraft crew will often have more time and ability to repair a faulty spacecraft than an aircraft that was headed for the ground, with engines that are inaccessible during flight (no real aircraft EVA options).

  • Anthony Domanico

    Edward,

    Thank you for the follow up. Very informative and thoughtful as usual. There is one other consideration that we both alluded to. Our culture is a very different one than the one our country had during the beginnings of aviation. My perception is that we have become much more risk adverse. The public doesn’t have the stomach for any loss of life. I think that’s both good and bad. Obviously a lot of tragedies could have been avoided if life was cherished. On the other hand I don’t think the government should have the authority to restrict people from taking calculated risks with their own life and property. I have to believe we will do better in this new frontier.

  • Edward

    My perception is that we have become much more risk adverse. The public doesn’t have the stomach for any loss of life.

    Excellent point. 106 years ago we allowed the Titanic to sail without lifeboats for all aboard. In the early 1940s, American trolleys were redesigned to be far safer than in earlier decades. In the 1960s American auto manufacturers were forced to put seat belts into new cars, admitting that auto travel was not such a safe means of travel as the public would like. In the 1980s, airlines got even more serious about safety, because they realized that with the increasing number of flights each year, they would soon have a headline each week about yet another crash.

    We may even be so politically correct that we look at safety in the wrong way. I was looking for an exaggeration of safety concerns and came across the picture in the following essay, but the essay is pretty good, too. We, as a culture, seem to have unrealistic expectations. As the author points out, even smart people occasionally have lapses and do stupid things. The picture is an example of a solution that fails to solve whatever the problem was. Presumably it shows the result of a lapse in judgement of an otherwise smart safety expert. Or maybe a design-by-committee of presumably smart safety experts.
    https://safetyrisk.net/you-can-lead-a-horse-to-water-but-you-cant-make-him-think/
    We don’t always see the hazards until they kill us.

  • wayne

    Edward-
    Interesting stuff.

    You might highly enjoy most anything from Nassim Taleb.

    Nassim Taleb:
    “Convexity and Antifragility; Black Swans, Fat Tails, and Intellectual Fallacies.”
    August 2017, NSF Conference.
    https://youtu.be/xypvPm6cVYk
    (1:07:28)

    “Saying ‘it never happened before,’ is no excuse.”

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