Tuesday, November 23, 2004

If Frostbite in the High Andes Doesn't Sound Like Fun, How About a Rocket Plane to 100 Km?

by Tom Bozzo

Tempting, but no thanks -- not yet.

Showing that well-reasoned analysis can show up in the darnedest places, Alex Tabarrok shows at Tech Central Station (better known, on the whole, for conservative professors' shilling for various corporate interests) that even an improvement of an order of magnitude or two in space launch safety would still leave space tourism too dangerous for the mass market. So the immediate successors of Burt Rutan's X Prize-winning SpaceShip One project, such as Richard Branson's hyperbolically named Virgin Galactic, can be expected to appeal only to a narrow segment of very rich risk-takers.

For his trouble, Tabarrok was sharply criticized by a 'space entrepreneur' in a subsequent TCS piece for not understanding the technological 'singularity' represented by Rutan's efforts.

My take: Rutan well deserves the cover of Time for his invention, but Tabarrok is substantially correct. He acknowledges Rutan's safety innovations for the powered and re-entry phases of flight (there are as yet insufficient flight observations to gauge Rutan's success, and as Tabarrok notes, several test flights had flight control problems).

But the SpaceShip One design, in being cleverly geared towards the suborbital flight profile required by the X Prize, effectively punts on the major challenges that currently make spacecraft capable of reaching orbit expensive and/or dangerous: obtaining sufficient performance from rocket engines to reach orbital speeds, and then dissipating the energy on re-entry. Spending the price of the median Dane County house on a few minutes' high altitude weightlessness sounds like a little less than a space tourism revolution.
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