Home Science Space FAA official says space tourism risky, Virgin Galactic prez says not so


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FAA official says space tourism risky, Virgin Galactic prez says not so

  • 02 August 2008
  • Written by 
  • Published in Space
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration warned at the end of July 2008 that civil companies, such as Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic, who are pioneering the first sub-orbital flights as part of the fledgling space tourism industry have extraordinary risks in their endeavors. Virgin Galactic says it will be thousands of times safer than any previous human spaceflights.

Dr. George C. Nield met with representatives of the Space Frontier Foundation, an organization dedicated to advancing human exploration of space, during their annual meeting in Washington, D.C. (United States).

Nield stated, according to the New Scientist article “Too gung-ho” (July 26, 2008, page 7), that with respect to the up-and-coming space tourism business, “What’s going on now represents a very different level of risk.”

Nield is in charge of the Commercial Space Transportation unit within the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that oversees and regulates commercial human space flight safety.

When asked to compare the risks involved in the fledgling space tourism industry with another risky aviation venture, Nield recalled the early supersonic jet flights.

He specifically mentioned the American-made Lockheed F-104 Starfighter, which was nicknamed “The Widowmaker," after its very poor safety record during the 1950s and 1960s. In fact, approximately 110 pilots from the German Luftwaffe were lost in test flights of the single-engine, high-performance supersonic interceptor aircraft.

Nield concluded, as reported by New Scientist, “Neglecting safety could mean ‘an end to commercial human space flight before it has [a] chance to get started.”

At about the same time of the Nield interview, the president of Virgin Galactic was being interviewed on the safety aspects of putting regular (but wealthy) people into space during sub-orbital flights. Please read page two.

On the other side of the safety picture, Virgin Galactic president Will Whitehorn was recently interviewed by The Independent.

Whitehorn was asked by interviewer, “New technology involves risk, space travel most certainly does. How can you manage the dangers?”

Whitehorn answered, ”We’re trying to take the riskiest things out of the equation. Ground-based rocketry involves firing a massive explosion under somebody to leave the planet – we’ve eliminated that. So you’re launching in a very safe environment."

He added, "We’ve hopefully eliminated some of the risks of re-entry, which is another of the most dangerous aspects.We believe that this will be thousands of times safer than any previous human flights into space.”

The entire interview is found at the July 26, 2008 The Independent website entitled “Space travel: Are we nearly there yet?

Comment: This journalist agrees with both points of view. Nield is very much right when he says enormous risks are involved in space travel, especially when a whole new industry is just getting off the ground.

However, if developed properly, with strenuous safety precautions set into the system, a "relatively" safer journey into space can be achieved. I really do not think, however, that a "very safe" trip can be hoped for, at least initially in the first few years of commercial space travel. I guess it all depends on what is meant by "very safe, "relatively safer," etc.

With that stated, nothing in this world is without risks. And space is not a place that is inherently a secure place to be without properly designed and maintained equipment and spacecraft and properly trained pilots and ground crew. Some companies will do it with the "right stuff" and others will not.

We'll find out eventually which ones are the safer companies to go out there in space with, and which ones aren't. As a comparison, some car companies, as an example, have better safety records than others. As with cars, you will most likely pay more for safer trips (or, maybe I should say less risky trips) to space.


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