August 27, 2014 1:46 pm

Spaceports are unlikely to get off the ground

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Space travel is so dangerous that it is likely to cause a tragic fiasco, writes Jonathan Margolis
FT Bylines: Jonathan Margoli Photograph: Rosie HallamFT Bylines: Murad Ahmed Photograph: Rosie Hallam

Almost every serious-minded scientist I meet argues that for humanity to survive, we need to conquer space, ultimately to colonise other worlds.

This is not fashionable stuff, especially for the environment-focused young. Enthusiasts for manned space exploration like me tend to be older people who remember the wonder of the Apollo space programme. And although governments, Britain’s included, like having a space programme, only in China does the state still fully underwrite one.

Elsewhere, it’s all about privatisation. Nasa is shortly expected to award a contract to build spacecraft to either Boeing, PayPal founder Elon Musk’s SpaceX, or Sierra Nevada Corporation. Government is so out of the spaceship game.

When humanity escapes doom on Earth, then, the intergalactic craft carrying billions of people to new planets may well be branded in the livery of private companies.

The connection between this grand scheme, capitalism saving the species, and Scotland’s impending referendum on independence may seem tenuous. But the UK government has just floated a plan to build the first commercial spaceport outside the US, and named eight possible sites, six of them in Scotland. The idea is for the spaceport to host both serious missions and space tourism for those willing to pay the vast sums needed.

This initiative seems a rare example of politicians thinking further ahead than the next election – indeed, to infinity and beyond – unless it is just a referendum promise, and ministers do not actually know much about manned space travel.

Perhaps they really don’t – or they might not be so glib. Putting people into space is so dangerous that, even though inspirational entrepreneurs such as Mr Musk and Sir Richard Branson appear closer to doing it, it is practically impossible to envisage it not ending up a tragic fiasco. Tragic because people might die nastily, but also because the first space tourism catastrophe could hinder development of an escape route for humankind.

As James Hansen, the US space historian, told me recently: “Space tourism as promoted lulls people into believing it’s low-risk. But it will be very high-risk indeed, and the inevitable accidents will traumatise us as much as the loss of Space Shuttles did, likely even more so. I am not against these ventures but let’s be honest about what we call them.”

It gives me no pleasure to reach the pessimistic, little-Earther conclusion that the rush to get high- net-worth individuals on a wondrous stunt ride into suborbital space is probably doomed.

Are people joining the likes of Sir Richard and Mr Musk really going to be prepared to risk dying for them?

Just look at manned space travel’s record. There are different counting methods, but the consensus is that some 3 per cent of 540 astronauts have died flying. Other disasters, notably Apollo 13, were only narrowly avoided. Include unreported Soviet crashes, ground accidents such as the one that killed three Apollo 1 astronauts, plus suborbital mishaps that are not counted as space accidents, and the proportion of astronauts killed in training or on missions touches 5 per cent.

These deaths occurred under state auspices. But early evidence of private space enterprise being safer is not forthcoming. Rockets and pioneering space flight are just exceptionally hazardous – probably too much so to be consumerised.

Seen another way, Nasa, the Russians and the Chinese spend years training superhumans. Their state astronauts come from a military culture; death is risked for your country. Are people joining the likes of Sir Richard and Mr Musk really going to be prepared to risk dying for them?

Furthermore, are private spaceship pilots’ families and lawyers – and those of dead paying passengers – going for patriotic reasons to hold back from suing the butt off corporations? It is hard to imagine.

As for the passengers, who will probably have to travel into space uninsured, will significant numbers of them, enough to fill several flights a day, turn out to be the right stuff? I doubt it.

My fear is that Sir Richard, who since his record shop days has been so preternaturally canny and risk-averse, will be forced to pull the plug on his Galactic space company, making it somehow look like a heroic victory. Sadly, saving humanity may have to fall to future generations. Then, maybe, the Scots will lead the charge.

Michael Skapinker is away.

Twitter: @TheFutureCritic


Letter in response to this article:

Don’t write off the space tourists yet / From Mr Oliver Saiman

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