After the double space disaster of the past week and a few, worrying studies that have been recently published, some have started wondering if the whole space adventure has been considered too optimistically. This is a good time to ask ourselves a few important questions on feasibility. While space tourism is obviously the one more under scrutiny, it’s by no means the only one.
Then, there’s the long awaited replacement of the Russian Soyuz to take payloads (human or otherwise) to the ISS: to date, we are still using something (brilliantly) conceived around the 1960s. Saturn V, that has been used for Apollo missions and that you can admire in awe at the Kennedy Space Station, is now retired and if it were not, nobody would know how to make it work now… (this is only half joke: read this).
To avoid relying on the Soyuz only, NASA has started to contract private companies, like Orbital Sciences Corporation, and to help them develop a low-cost, commercial fleets to resupply the ISS. Antares – and the supply ship it launches, Cygnus – that exploded on October 29, was one of them.
“This new rocket was part of Nasa’s effort to contract out “routine” cargo resupply to the International Space Station. But if we needed reminding that nothing in space is routine then this explosion has brought that message home in spectacular fashion.” (Jonathan Amos, BBC science correspondent, October 29, 2014)
And what about the allegedly “easier” suborbital flights – i.e. those that reach past 50 miles for a few minutes? Not better luck either, lately. Only a few companies have started the race to offer them for space tourism in a short time-frame. Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo – the one that crashed last week – is one of them. It is intended to carry six passengers, and tickets are already on sale. If you can manage raising some $250,000 you can get on board together with some famous actors and scientists, including Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Katy Perry, and yes, Stephen Hawking.
Problem is, space remains a difficult business, even for those companies who already tackle air travel (like Virgin), let alone the ones for which this is not even among their core business. Elon Mask’s Space X, and its exotic Grasshopper rocket design, represents a partial exception, but, as somebody has aptly put, it is still a “young bird.”
“We’ve always known that the road to space is extremely difficult – and that every new transportation system has to deal with bad days early in their history.” (Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson, November, 1, 2014)