The other day, I was talking with someone who holds a ticket to fly into space with one of high-profile tourism companies currently offering such experiences, Virgin Galactic (Sir Richard Branson), Blue Origin (Jeff Bezos) and SpaceX (Elon Musk). When we discussed the flight plan, it became obvious that this person didn’t know the difference between a suborbital (Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic) and orbital (SpaceX) flight. Yet, several hundred thousand dollars had been spent to procure the ticket. If you’re forking out that kind of money to fly on a rocket, at least understand some of what you’re in for – the science, the history and the risks. You will appreciate the experience a lot more.
Anyone who thinks a space trip is a run-of-the-mill, roller-coaster ride is naive. Though accidents are rare, they do happen. Witness the Shuttle Challenger and Shuttle Columbia disasters, both of which killed their crews of six; the fire aboard Apollo 1, which killed its crew of three on the ground; the crash of a Virgin Galactic test flight in 2014 which killed the co-pilot.
There are more. All in all, it is estimated that more than 600 people have been to space; 11 have died training and/or testing, and 19 during spaceflight. And those are just reported fatalities. Imagine what else may have transpired in closed disinformation societies like Russia and China, where reporting is sketchy. Then there are the secret military mishaps testing high-speed, high-altitude aircraft en route to, and during, the space age.
As a hopeful Virgin Galactic space traveler myself (passenger #369), I have trained extensively, experiencing parabolic weightlessness in an IL-76 over Russia; revolving in a NASTAR centrifuge to simulate my flight including the takeoff and reentry forces (maximum 6 Gs); traveling at Mach 2.6 (just above two-and-a-half times the speed of sound) in a MiG-25 Foxbat where, at 84,000 feet, I saw the blackness of space, the curvature of the Earth and the thin atmosphere hanging over it; and, most recently, pulling 9 Gs in an F-16 fighter jet over Alaska. During the training, I obviously learned the difference between orbital and suborbital flight, as I should have, plus many other things.
Orbital versus suborbital is pretty simple. An orbital flight requires a speed of 17,500 mph (Mach 23) via a powerful rocket to place travelers into an elliptical orbit a few hundred miles above Earth (the International Space Station, for example, is 254 miles up). Participants spend days, if not months, up there. A suborbital flight maxes out at about 2,200 mph (Mach 2.9) and takes passengers to between 50 and 70 miles above Earth, considered space, for a scant few minutes. Think of suborbital as heading to space, poking your head into it, then quickly descending to the ground. Blue Origin’s entire suborbital flight lasts about 11 minutes.
As you can see, suborbital is a much, much, simpler – and less expensive – proposition than orbital. Suborbital speed is about 13% of an orbital flight, and the apogee is only one-quarter to one-fifth as high. Also, the energy required to put something into orbit is astronomical (pun intended). Witness SpaceX – the going rate for a seat on its orbital spacecraft is between $50 and $95 million.
All of that said, space travelers, whether orbital or suborbital, are still a very select group. Broken out, suborbital (early astronauts Alan Shepard and Gus Grissom, some of the X-15 pilots, SpaceShipOne, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic fliers) accounts for less than 5% of all flights, orbital more than 95%. But the suborbital category will grow as more space tourism companies come online, and the existing ones increase their flight frequencies. Like with the airline industry, more capacity will drive prices down. Today’s 18-year-old by the time he is 40 may be able to go to space for the price of a business class transcontinental airline ticket, or less.
I’ve been wanting to write this story for a while. Irrespective of my recent chat about suborbital versus orbital, the tipping point, so many people I’ve talked with over the years don’t understand the basics of modern spaceflight. One even asked me what planets I’d be visiting on my Virgin Galactic suborbital flight. That is sad. But still sadder is if the ticket-holders themselves don’t grasp the basic science behind their flights. And the risks. Given cumulative statistics since the space race started in 1961, you stand a 3% to 4% chance of dying on a spaceflight. That doesn’t sound so high, but consider your chances of perishing in a commercial airline accident. Though reported numbers vary widely, all say the risk is one in several million. Big difference.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big proponent of the private space movement (obviously, since I have a Virgin Galactic ticket). It has shown that reusing most all of space hardware is possible, that regular people can travel into space and, importantly, is helping advance technological knowledge which can be put to good use for the human race going forward. I just hope that the travelers themselves take the time to understand the technology, the risks and how rare their flights still are.