Why the suborbital space tourism is TOO DANGEROUS
The new "buzz word" and the promising new business seems be the "suborbital space tourism" of which many talk about but, it seems, NO ONE thinks about (or really knows) the REAL risks of the launch of untrained tourists in a rocket to over 110 km. of altitude!
So, in this article (that will be SURELY ignored or hidden by ALL forums, blogs and news sites, as happened to many ghostNASA's "very disliked", but TRUE, articles, like those about the Ares-1, the "Google" Lunar X Prize, the TRUE story of the DIRECT rocket, the SpaceSolarPower DEBUNK, etc.) I've decided to explain, step by step, the very long (but probably not complete) list of the risks, that, the suborbital space tourists, could/will face if this kind of business will really start.
The first suborbital vehicle (and, the much closer to fly, pretty soon, with rich tourists) is the SpaceShipTwo (just experimental) son of the (very experimental) SpaceShipOne (that successful reached the 62 miles altitude target to won the Ansari X Prize) that is built of two parts, both them in a test phase: the suborbital vehicle called SpaceShipTwo (that should reach 68 miles of altitude or 110 km.) and its mother ship WhiteKnightTwo that should carry and launch it from about 10 miles of altitude.
Both vehicles developed (like the SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnight) by Burt Rutan and his Scaled Composites company, later funded, with $250 million, by Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic to pioneer the suborbital space tourism business.
The WhiteKnightTwo mother ship...
The WhiteKnightTwo mother ship's design is pretty close to an airline's jet like those made by Boeing and Airbus, but, while these two are very giant companies with (respectively) 160,000 and 52,000 employees, billion$ of money, army of engineers, all most advanced technologies, the best design and test software, etc. the WK2 is designed, built and test by a very small aerospace company called Scaled Composites, that has a few million$ of revenue/funds and only 200 employees.
Well, if, despite the advantages to be a giant aerospace company (as explained above and as you can easily imagine) both Boeing and Airbus have faced several problems and long delays, while they developed their latest airplane models, the Boeing 787 Dreamliner (for THREE years!) and the Airbus A380 (for about TWO years).
Then, HOW the (nearly-hobbyists' designed and hand-made!) WhiteKnightTwo (and SpaceShipTwo) built by a small company with a little bunch of employees, can be more perfect, safe and reliable than a (similar but not so extreme) airplane developed and built by one of the biggest aerospace companies???
HOW, an airplane like the WhiteKnightTwo that will fly for test with a SINGLE model, few dozens times, for few thousands hours and few months can be reliable as a big company's airplane that flies in several units, with many professional test pilots, millions hours, for years, before be allowed for commercial flights with passengers???
Well, the answer to these questions is pretty simple, since, due to the lower funds, less employees and less time of the small company that builds the single WhiteKnightTwo, the latter will be (surely) tested as best as possible, but, great part of its REAL tests about its safety and reliability (or its possible design flaws) will be made when it will be on service and will fly with paying turists... in other words, only after hundreds real flights with real passengers, we will know (from the number of its accidents and crashes) IF the WhiteKnightTwo and the SpaceShipTwo are more, or less, or as safe and reliable as (e.g.) a Boeing 747.
The SpaceShipTwo propellants...
All flying vehicles use some kind of fuel for their engines (that for airlines and military jets is a kerosene-type of jet fuel) and all these fuels are very flammable as we've seen in hundreds airplanes accident but, at least the jet fuel needs to be ignited to burn and can do that only in the atmosphere, since it needs the air oxygen for the combustion, so, the jet fuel can't burn or explode in the vacuum nor under the sea and, also, the water or the special foam used by firefighters can stop the fuel burning or, sometimes, avoid the burning of a fuel leak after a plane crash on runway.
Unfortunately, the SpaceShipTwo isn't an airlplane (then, doesn't use the jet fuel) but is a TRUE ROCKET (since its engine must work also while flies in the high altitude vacuum) and, like all rockets, the SpaceShipTwo carries aboard both the fuel and the oxidizer of its hybrid rocket motor.
In other words, a rocket engine isn't like the commonly used jet engines, but a completely different (and very dangerous) beast that can burn its propellants (or EXPLODE like the Space Shuttle Challenger in case of malfunction or accident) also in the vacuum or under the sea (like all nuclear weapons rockets launched by submarines) and that, once ignited, can't be turned off nor be extinguished with water or any fire fighting foam, after an accident or a crash on a runway!!!
So, the rich "space tourists" (that should pay $200,000 each, for a very dangerous trip towards the Space) on the SpaceShipTwo, will NOT fly aboard something like a new, safe and reliable "executive jet" for Space, but (literally) "riding" to a rocket loaded of dangerous and explosive propellants (just few inches back the space tourists' ass...) that will be pretty close like fly on an ICBM or riding a bomb!!!
One final doubt, about the rocket's propellants of the SpaceShipTwo, regards its total mass (on which no real data has been yet released) vs. the vehicle's mass, because, at glance (by comparison with the smaller SpaceShipOne that has flown with only one pilot aboard) while, that propellants, surely is enough to disintegrate the vehicle (if something goes wrong) in the same time it seems not enough (evaluating it from the internal volume assigned for it) to lift a so big and heavy spacecraft, with two pilots and six passengers aboard (one more than the Space Shuttle) to 70 miles of altitude (that is about half the orbital insertion altitude of the Space Shuttle).
NO "emergency escape systems" aboard...
The airplanes used by airlines don't have any "in-flight emergency escape system", but, as explained above, these airplanes are developed in several years by large armies of engineers, huge investments, the best, most advanced and most expensive simulation and testing instruments, many airplanes built for test, millions of hours of test flights, accomplished by very skilled test pilots, etc. also, these airplanes already are very safe and reliable by design, thanks to their strong structure, large wings (that allow them to glide up to 150 miles and land on runway also without any working engine!) systems able to extinguish the fire of an engine in flight, the most advanced electronic systems for take-off, flight, landing or any possible emergency, etc. that's why passengers and crews can be (and actually are) very confident to fly on commercial airplanes.
Of course, the small and dangerous flying vehicles, like ALL manned experimental aircrafts or ALL military jet fighters or ALL manned spacecrafts, always have one or more kind of "emergency escape systems" for their pilots or crews, like (e.g.) the ejection seat (for military jet fighters and the Gemini capsule) or a launch escape system (used for manned spacecrafts like Apollo, Soyuz, etc.) or an ejectable crew cabin or, at least, all pilots and passengers (or space tourists) must have a parachute (like those used by all aviators of military bombers and, also, by Space Shuttle astronauts in case of aborted mission at low altitudes) and that, however, always needs several months of training, several dozens launches (also from very high altitude) with and without a instructor and also needs to all space tourists to be in perfect shape and good health to be safely and successfully used in case of emergency or in an aborted mission!!!
For what I know (both) crews and space tourists of WhiteKnightTwo and SpaceShipTwo, will NOT have any parachute while the space tourists should NOT EVEN be trained to use one, however, give them the parachutes, has little or no sense, since the parachute can be used only if something goes wrong between (about) 2000 and 20,000 ft. of altitude.
Under 2000 ft. of altitude there is not enough time to open the vehicles' hatches, launch the people aboard the vehicles, open all parachutes and land safely, so, the only possible attempt to save the crews and passengers, is an emergency landing on the spaceport's runway (if lucky) or another place (without the runway, the fast rescue, the fire fighting systems and the ambulances of an airport) with both vehicles fully loaded of kerosene (the mother ship) and of (very explosive) rocket propellants (the suborbital spacecraft) since the spacecraft rocket motor can't be ejected in-flight before an emergency landing, as, instead, can be done with the excess fuel in an airline airplane.
Over 20,000 ft. of altitude (but under 50,000 ft.) both, crew and space tourists, need a very advanced training and very expensive jet fighter suits (to protect them from the low external pressure and low temperatures of high altitudes) with enough oxygen reserve and a mask like those used by military jets' pilots.
Over 60,000 ft. (but, under 120,000 ft.) of altitude, the SpaceShipTwo pilot and space tourists MUST WEAR (at least) an SR-71 pilot full pressure suit and MUST BE TRAINED exactly like an SR-71 pilot or (best) be trained like (and have the same pressurized suit used by) Joseph Kittinger and Felix Baumgartner (the latter should break the parachute jump record and also the sound barrier!!!).
Over 120,000 ft. (and, especially, near the 360,000 ft. suborbital flight peak altitude) to save their lives the SpaceShipTwo pilot and space tourists, need to... a) be like Iron Man (and wear his same superhero suit) or... b) wear an (not yet existing) futuristic/sci-fi personal orbital reentry suit... because, jump from nearly 70 miles of altitude without these kind of super space suits, means reach several Mach of speed, then, burn within few seconds after the contact with the denser atmosphere... :[
Of course, jump from the SpaceShipTwo with a parachute (at not too high altitudes and only if you've had a very good training) "could" save your space-tourists-life ONLY if something simple (but unsolvable) will happen aboard the suborbital spacecraft before the rocket motor ignition, because, if the rocket motor explodes during its 70 seconds burning, you'll not even have the time to say "MammaMia"!!!
THREE dangerous vehicles in a single spaceplane...
The SpaceShipTwo clearly is a spacecraf (since it should reach about half of the orbital insertion altitude of the Space Shuttle!) AND it is also faster than a military jet fighter (since it should reach the peak speed of 4,200 km/h or 2,600 mph or nearly Mach 4 that is about TWICE the max speed of an F-16 and +20% the max speed of the SR-71 that's the faster known jet plane) AND there's no doubt that it's a very experimental vehicle (since, it's only the THIRD suborbital vehicle, after the X-15 and the SpaceShipOne) but, despite the SpaceShipTwo is the SUM of the performances and risks of THREE different (and very dangerous) vehicles, it will NEVER have any "emergency escape system", like the ejection seats or a launch escape system or an ejectable crew cabin or (at least) a parachute for its pilot and the space tourists, that, as said above, must be trained to use a parachute, also jumping from very high altitudes!
In other words, the space tourists (that will pay $200,000 each for a very risky 30 minutes trip to the space) aboard the SpaceShipTwo will face the SAME risks to fly on an experimental vehicle AND the SAME risks to fly on the fastest military fighters AND the SAME risks to fly on spacecraft that will reach 110 km. of altitude and many other risks (some listed below) but, WITHOUT have any emergency system to SAVE THEIR LIVES if something goes wrong... NOT any ejections seat (used on ALL experimental vehicles and ALL military jet fighters) NOR any launch escape system (used on ALL spacecrafts, excluding the very risky Space Shuttle) NOR any ejectable crew cabin and NOT EVEN a very basic safety system (called "parachute"...) for the pilot and the passengers!!!
So, fly aboard the SpaceShipTwo, will be more dangerous than ride an experimental car, at over 1000 mph of speed, with the gasoline tank under your seat, but without any ejection system, nor airbags, nor any fire extinguisher, nor seat belt, nor any other safety system, to (just HOPE to) save your life if something goes wrong!!!
NOT a man-rated suborbital spacecraft...
ALL the flying (or non flying) vehicles to be used with humans aboard (including the airplanes, trains, ships, cars, motorcycles, bicycles, but, especially, the most dangerous vehicles, like military fighters and spacecrafts) MUST be "human rated" in some ways, that means that, these vehicles, must be enough safe and reliable (and must have ALL the BEST emergency safety systems) to fly with pilots and passengers, without put them under serious (or too high) risks to die.
The (very long, complex and expensive) human-rating certification is well known by all aerospace engineers, that always MUST apply its RULES to ALL spacecrafts and rockets designed to fly with humans (and the SpaceShipTwo clearly IS a spacecraft AND a rocket that should fly with passengers) and, the man-rating, is particularly important for ALL rockets designed to launch manned vehicles like the SpaceShipTwo, since, with their load of propellants, they are like bombs ready to explode, that's why they need to be designed with a TRIPLE REDUNDANCY built in (as explained in this Wired Science article) and, of course, must carry only spacecrafts that have one or more "emergency escape systems" able to quickly act when all redundant systems fail and save the astronauts.
The human-rating certification of a rocket (like the SpaceShipTwo actually IS) may need 5+ years of design and test, an army of very skilled engineers and hundreds of million$ of investments, so, I doubt very much, that, a (simple, cheap, quickly designed and soon launched with tourists) vehicle, like the SpaceShipTwo, has any "triple redundancy" or has been (or will be) "man-rated", (to be enough safe and reliable to fly with humans) but, also if has (or will have) a triple redundancy system and will be man-rated, these systems and tests will be completely USELESS for a vehicle that hasn't any "emergency escape system" able to save the space tourists if something goes wrong.
The vehicles' mechanical joining system...
If you think that all the big risks listed above (and below) aren't enough to consider the SpaceShipTwo a damn risky vehicle, just think, that, it will be only the THIRD manned vehicle (after the experimental X-15 and the SpaceShipOne) and the FIRST vehicle to carry PAYING PASSENGERS (also called "space tourists") rather than only a test pilot, that will be released in-flight by a mother ship (the WhiteKnightTwo) at about 10 miles of altitude, clearly adding many further possible risks vs. the flight of tourists aboard a common airline jet.
The system that joins the two vehicles (and must release the SpaceShipTwo at high altitude) has been surely designed to be as good and reliable as possible, but, like ALL mechanical devices (especially the most innovative and exotic systems, like the one used on this spaceplane) could have some (and, often, completely unknown before) design flaws, malfunctions, components' degradation, etc. that could undermine the reliability of this vital system and put the pilots and the space tourists under serious risks.
There are, at least, three (and all them very dangerous) possible consequences in case of a severe malfunction of the mechanical joining system between the two vehicles:
1. a fast, sudden and unexpected release of the SpaceShipTwo at a lower than planned altitude or (much worse!) at its take-off (or few minutes later) will force the spacecraft pilot to perform a risky emergency landing, with the vehicle fully loaded of propellants that can't be emptied in-flight nor jettisoned with the rocket motor, as, instead, can be done with the excess fuel in an commercial airline jet.
An emergency landing on runway with the SpaceShipTwo fully loaded of propellants is very risky since this spacecraft hasn't any jet engine nor can use the rocket motor to correct its trajectory or pull up the plane or recover from a stall, but, in both a successful mission (without any propellants aboard) than in a risky emergency landing, the pilot has only an "one shot or die" attempt to land safely, because (like the Space Shuttle) the SpaceShipTwo reentry from Space and landing can happen only like a motorless glider.
The same risks could happen, in an aborted mission, if, after being released from the WhiteKnightTwo the rocket motor of the SpaceShipTwo can't be started for its suborbital trip and the spaceplane must come back to the spaceport's runway, with its full load of propellants aboard.
Clearly, the highest risk of a lethal disaster will happen when the sudden and unexpected release of the SpaceShipTwo will happen on the spaceport's runway during the take-off (mainly since the SpaceShipTwo will take-off with its landing gear up and closed) or if will happen few minutes after the take-off, without leave to the pilot enough time to turn back the (motoreless) spaceplane, glide towards the runway and land safely.
2. the less dangerous scenario (of the three possible) in case of a malfunction of the mechanical joining system, should happen if that system does not work (not releasing the SpaceShipTwo) at 10 miles of altitude, since (I suppose) that, the WhiteKnightTwo, has been designed, built and tested to land safely also with the SpaceShipTwo still joined to it and fully loaded of propellants.
3. but the absolutely worst scenario (and also the less probable to have any happy end) is a joining system malfunction that will result in a partial releasing of the SpaceShipTwo from the WhiteKnightTwo, with the SpaceShipTwo that remains half joined to its mother ship and (also) tilted in the front or the back, with the risk that the vehicle could break away suddenly, but without any possibility of know if, when and where this could happen, if during the emergency landing or in-flight, if at low or high altitude... well, I think there's no need to explain in how many ways such a situation can turn into a catastrophe for both vehicles and for all their passengers... :[
The #1 risk for the astronauts of all spaceflights...
I don't know if a bunch of untrained space-tourists that fly for few minutes above the 62 miles of altitude can be truly called "astronauts" but, without doubt, the space-tourists will share with the TRUE astronauts the #1 risk of all spaceflights: THE VACUUM.
As you can read in the table below, the atmospheric pressure decreases very much with the increase of the altitude... so, at about 18,000 ft. it drops to half than sea level and we need an oxygen mask to avoid a loss of consciousness due to hypoxia (and other serious health risks) from high altitude decompression or lack of cabin pressurization as happened, in 2005, to the pilots and passengers of the Helios Airways Flight 522 that has reached 34,000 ft. of altitude with the automatic pressurisation system unactivated.
At 53,000 ft. of altitude, the atmospheric pressure drops to 1/10th of the sea level and, at 101,000 ft. of altitude (that is about 16,000 ft. above the service ceiling of an SR-71) drops to only 1/100th of the sea level.
At 283,000 ft. of altitude (a bit above the mesosphere) the atmospheric pressure drops to only 1/100,000th the sea level and the top of the mesosphere (called mesopause) is also the coldest place on Earth with temperatures as low as −100 °C (173 K −148 °F).
Well, the SpaceShipTwo should reach a peak altitude of about 367,000 ft. (about 112 Km. or 68 miles) that's over four times the service ceiling of an SR-71 or about half the orbital insertion altitude of the Space Shuttle and over 85,000 ft. above the boundary between the mesosphere and the thermosphere.
At this peak altitude, external temperature (-100 °C) max speed (nearly Mach 4 that's about TWICE the max speed of an F-16) max acceleration and structural stress, the SpaceShipTwo hardware and passengers must face nearly the SAME flight's conditions and risks than with spacecrafts like the Soyuz or the Space Shuttle!!!
For the SpaceShipTwo hardware and passengers, an external atmospheric pressure of less than 1/100,000th than sea level is nearly EXACTLY like say ZERO PRESSURE and ZERO OXYGEN that are the SAME environmental conditions faced by the Space Shuttle and Soyuz spacecrafts, the ISS modules and ALL the astronauts that fly aboard them!!!
So, the spacecraft's hardware, the spacesuits and the pilots and passengers training, for a suborbital flight, MUST NOT BE at hobby planes level, NOR at executive jets level, NOR at commercial airlines level, NOR at military jet fighters level, but EXACTLY at the (BEST existing) SPACE GRADE technologies and standards!!!
A spacecraft that seems thin and fragile...
I truly hope (for the pilots and passengers of the SpaceShipTwo) that these vehicles will be made with kryptonite or turbinium or other very strong materials, because, when I've seen the early images (proudly released by Scaled Composites some months ago) of the SpaceShipTwo fuselage under construction, it immediately seemed me, at first glance, really TOO THIN and FRAGILE for the hard job that waits this suborbital spacecraft at 70 miles of altitude, Mach 4 of speed and in the FULL VACUUM of Space!!!
The web is full of images that show the assembly steps of the SpaceShipTwo, but the image below has won my attention, because it clearly shows how incredibly artigianal is the construction of a vehicle that "should" carry EIGHT HUMANS, at nearly MACH 4 of speed, to the TOTALLY VACUUM environment of the thermosphere 70 MILES above the Earth surface!!!
Sorry, but, frankly, this image looks much more like the assembly of a giant boiler made of recycled scrap iron (built with the same primitive technology used 100+ years ago) rather than the assembly of a "spacecraft" that "should" match, compete and replace the (soon retired) Space Shuttle!!!
The materials used and the details about its dimension and thickness are still unknown, but, looking the image above and the left image below, we may evaluate (by comparison) that the metal used to build the ENTIRE "spacecraft" (the passengers cabin, the pilots' cockpit, the oxidizer tank and motor's fuselage, but, also, the THIN WALL of separation between the eight persons aboard and the very dangerous rocket motor!) seems have only HALF INCH of thickness, or so, while, all parts of this "hi-tech" (and thin) metallic shell, seem be joined together only by some very simple (and fragile) solderings!!!!!!
Only the 17 windows (or more?) the hatch and two (mysterious) smaller holes (at the left and right side of the cockpit) seem have more tickness (about a couple of inch, or so) but the detail of the windows (right image, above) seem suggest that the glass part of all windows could be just "glued" to windows' frames with (I suppose) some kind of rubber material, between the glass and the frames, that "should" always keep pressurized the space-tourists' cabin also when outside this "spaceship" will be only the FULL VACUUM existing at 70 miles of altitude!!!
Also assuming that the (simpler than some home built aircrafts) main body of this vehicle is enough strong to resist the very high speed, high structural stress, high acceleration, very low temperature and VACUUM of a suborbital flight to the thermosphere (something of which I doubt very much...) the very high number of windows (clearly done, to offer the best viewing of Space, to the rich space-tourists that will fly aboard it) and several other "holes" (at least 20 in total, but I've seen some images of the future vehicle, that show also some windows on the floor of the passenger cabin) may increase very much the risk that one or more of these windows will have a leak of their sealing, causing a sudden and very risky decompression of the vehicle cabin in the vacuum!!!
And, unfortunately, after seeing dozens images of the real vehicle under construction and many other drawings, technical diagrams, full-sized mockups and computer renderings of the SpaceShipTwo, I've not seen any other internal structure that might help to reinforce the thin and fragile body of this subobital spacecraft!!!
So far, I've not found on the Web (if any) the complete and detailed diagrams (with data of its tickness) of the Space Shuttle cabin, but you can see and evaluate by yourself, with your eyes (just doing an easy comparison with the SpaceShipTwo real images) how much strong, complex and VERY THICK it is (since it must fly in the FULL VACUUM) just taking a look at the images (below) of its open hatch and of some of its windows!!!
The very thin space-tourists' spacesuits...
After the successful flights of the (records' breaking and Ansari X Prize winner) smaller and fragile SpaceShipOne, I've seen several really shocking video of these flights, taken from inside the test pilots' cabin, while they reach up to 70 miles of altitude, with the FULL VACUUM outside the spacecraft, wearing ONLY a not-pressurized and very light turists-plane's suit with a small and light helmet and a simple oxygen mask!!!
And, also some of the early images and presentations of the SpaceShipTwo passengers' cabin mockup (after the Virgin Galactic's acquisition of the full project) have shown these space-tourists and the spacecraft's pilots wearing ONLY some fitness-like suits without any helmet nor any oxygen masks!!!
Then, later, someone has (probably) just remembered that a suborbital spacecraft must fly in the FULL VACUUM of Space, so, they decided to give a very low cost spacesuit to their future space-tourists... but, could a $20,000 (simple, light and generic) "unisuit", really replace (and be enough safe and reliable) a $20,000,000 (complex, advanced, very thick and tailor made) Space Shuttle astronauts' pressurized orange spacesuit and its strong helmet???
Well, personally, I think that the answer is a big "NO", since, as explained above, both, a Space Shuttle and a SpaceShipTwo, must fly in the TOTAL VACUUM of Space, so, both, their astronauts, space-tourists and pilots, absolutely need a full and real SPACE-GRADE suit, and, that suits, must be MUCH BETTER than today's Advanced Crew Escape Suit of the Space Shuttle astronauts, because, as shown in its current specifications these suits are safe ONLY if used INSIDE the Space Shuttle and ONLY within 30 km. of altitude!!!
Also a report released by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board (CAIB) said that "the suits worn by the astronaut crew would not have protected the astronauts at the altitude and velocity of the Columbia break-up in 2003".
So, to fly safely above 30 km. of altitude and in the external TOTAL VACUUM of the 70 miles peak altitude reached by a SpaceShipTwo (that's the SAME VACUUM faced by the Space Shuttle and the ISS astronauts) all the suborbital space-tourists and pilots absolutely NEED to wear an EVA grade spacesuit, like the one shown in the image below, between the Advanced Crew Escape Suit and the (proposed) fitness-like jumpsuit... that, only, if the space-tourists and pilots want to survive a possible accidental decompression of the spacecraft's cabin, of course...
Fly aboard a thin and fragile spacecraft like the SpaceShipTwo to 70 miles of altitude wearing only a fitness-like thin spacesuit, is much more dangerous than go on holiday to Antarctica, in the colder days of the year, driving a spyder and wearing only a short sleeve T-shirt... so, also assuming that this kind of vehicle is enough safe for that trips, its pilots and all the space-tourists aboard MUST wear a true EVA grade spacesuit (priced dozens million$ each) and, of course, all space-tourists (that MUST be in good shape and perfect health) MUST also be TRAINED to wear, use and fly with an advanced suit like this, especially focusing their training on what they must do in case of emergency if something goes wrong, no matter if this kind of spaceflights training will need months of time and million$ of costs per space tourist!!!
Hidden risks of this kind of Zero-G experience...
The targets of the SpaceShipTwo (and of all future vehicles for suborbital space tourism) are to offer, to their paying passengers, an amazing vision of the Earth from outer Space and to experience a couple of minutes of weightlessness, all for a $200,000 ticket.
But, also the (apparently safe and innocent) fun of a couple of minutes of weightlessness could become, by itself, a major source of troubles and risks for the space-tourists at 70 miles of altitude, that, since, as often stated by the Space Shuttle astronauts (that, instead of all the space capsules' astronauts, have the orbital reentry seated on their seats, like the passengers of the SpaceShipTwo) the transition between weightlessness and Earth gravity, isn't slow and gradual, but sudden and unexpected, almost brutal, so much to be felt even seated.
If that can be risky for the very experienced and well trained Space Shuttle astronauts, that, could be, even more risky, for a bunch of unexperienced and poorly trained sunday-space-tourists that will fly aboard a SpaceShipTwo since these hobby-astronauts should (in a couple of minutes) unfasten their seat belts, float in weightlessness inside a small cabin, always remain well-focused on the flow of the time, second by second, then, just few seconds before the end of the (very short) zero gravity period (hoping it does not come suddenly before the expected time) be able to grab (all together without any exception) their seats just in time, before the gravity returns (without be influenced in their movements by their huge pressurized spacesuit nor by the umbilical oxygen tubes) quickly fasten their seat belts (to avoid the risk to fall on other passengers or on the pilots when the SpaceShipTwo comes down toward the atmosphere) then (if all previous operations have been performed accurately and timely by all space-tourists without make any mistake!) be ready to return to Earth... just hoping that everything goes well...
Not even the BEST astronaut of the universe can be able to do ALL these critical things in only TWO MINUTES (just 120 seconds!!!) without NEVER make any mistake, so, it's absolutely IMPOSSIBLE that, thousands and thousands of completely untrained and unexperienced space-tourists, always will do all these things perfectly without have HUNDREDS of (very dangerous) mistakes with serious consequences for the suborbital flights safety and the passengers lives!!!
Send above 70 miles of altitude and at Mach 4 of speed, thousands persons that, for their entire lives (and still until the week before the launch) haven't NEVER done the Navy SEALs or Marines, but, a much quiet and safe job (like, managers, singers, actors, journalists, writers, programmers, etc.) and (in the spare time) golf, sailing, sauna, etc... will result in an incredible number of (more or less serious) accidents, in almost all suborbital flights, with dozens injured people, helmets glass broken, space tourists that fall on the spacecraft's pilots, while they are focused on the, return to Earth, operations, heart or panic or claustrophobia attacks, hysteria or also a simple vomit attack (that's a very risky occurrence at zero gravity and if you wear a spacesuit, because it can block the life support system of the spacesuit) health damage from decompression (in the case of severe structural failure) and many other problems!!!
Risks of the feathered reentry system...
All the orbital or suborbital spaceships, need some kind of braking system, to slow their speed, before the reentry in the denser atmosphere, without burn with their passengers aboard, and, the system chosen in all high speed reentry vehicles (like, all the space capsules and the Space Shuttle) is a thermal shield under the vehicle's body or wings.
Thanks to their lower reentry speed, both, the SpaceShipOne and SpaceShipTwo, have used (or will use) the (much simpler and lighter) feathered reentry system, that, like the vehicles' mechanical joining system (see above in this article) is another mechanical system that must absolutely work well for a safe return of the spacecraft and of its passengers, but, like ALL kind of mechanical system, can often have some malfunctions or not work at all.
So, if the the spacecraft's wings does NOT rotate correctly (due to, possible, mechanical malfunction) to brake the spacecraft at reentry the SpaceShipTwo could IMPACT to the denser atmosphere at too high speed, with a complete destruction in thousands pieces of the vehicle that will burn like the Space Shuttle Columbia then, this is another possible risk for the suborbital spaceflights safety and reliability.
And, as already explained above in this article, if the braking system does not work or the vehicle loses a wing or other vital parts or will be broken by a structural stress due to its very high speed, etc. there is no way to save the crew and the passengers from a so high altitude (not even, if they will have the parachutes) without die and burn when they will impact the denser atmosphere.
The SpaceShipTwo isn't the only suborbital spacecraft specifically designed and built for the suborbital space tourism business but, so far, it's the only vehicle of this kind that has been really built and that is tested in these days to be used soon (around 2011 or 2012) for the early commercial flights with paying passengers.
Other suborbital vehicles (like the XCOR Lynx or the EADS Astrium spaceplane) are under development (or just on paper still waiting for development funds) and I'll talk about them when their manufacturers will release more data and info, however, also other suborbital spacecraft design, don't change so much the BIG RISKS of the suborbital space tourism, as clearly explained in this article.
And, after all, many of the people and companies involved in this (rich?) new business are perfectly aware of the huge risks of these suborbital trips, that's why they ask (and, it seems, get) to all the american and non american States that should host the spaceports (from which the suborbital space tourism flights should take-off) the approval of a special legislation and specific laws that could reduce very much (or completely exclude) their civil and penal responsabilities in case of accidents, injured space tourists and deaths.
For the same reasons, I doubt, that, the suborbital tourism's companies, the spacecrafts' pilots and the passengers of these risky spacetravels, may find any insurance company ready to underwrite insurances of hundreds of million$ each, in favor of their families... that, also, since, due to the very high prices of the suborbital spaceflights tickets, only the most rich and famous people, should have enough money to buy them... and, also if EVERY life always is PRICELESS the death of a bunch of these well known and important persons for today's economy, may result in dramatic consequences for their companies... just imagine, if, aboard a crashed (or burned in the atmosphere) suborbital flight there was six space-tourists like (e.g.) Steve Ballmer, Paul McCartney, Al Gore, Oprah Winfrey, Michael Schumacher and (to finish their lives smiling) Robin Williams... very good thing for the Breaking News...
Fortunately (as I truly believe) everything about the suborbital space tourism (including the building and few flights, without space-tourists, of some real suborbital spacecrafts) seems be, at least, so far, ONLY a giant marketing operation, from which, a bunch of (crafty) "suborbital travels companies" (that can reply to this article, if they want) will earn lots of money ONLY talking about them indefinitely without NEVER fly with REAL space-tourists aboard their (very dangerous) vehicles... :)
[update] Some of the early readers of my article said that "everybody involved in this business already know its high risks"... well, probably that's true for the companies and businessmen that want to make money with the space tourism, but, surely, it's NOT TRUE for 99,99% of the (completely unexperienced) rich and famous customers of these "suborbital airlines companies" since all them, seeing the elegant and colorful SpaceShipTwo images on the space travels websites, could be led to believe that they will fly aboard a (very advanced, safe and reliable) airplane, like the Boeing 787, while, the reality of facts (known only to few people but hidden by these companies and by nearly ALL the Press!) is, that, they will fly to 70 miles of altitude at Mach 4 of speed (wearing only a fitness-like spacesuit...) aboard a dangerous vehicle built (at best) like a 1935's Douglas DC-3 (see the comparison images below).
[update] A blog reader reminded me to talk also about the July 27, 2007 fatal accident (as already done in my second ghostNASA article and in many comments posted on some space blogs) happened at the Burt Rutan's test base at the Mojave Air and Space Port when three Scaled Composites' workers have been killed and three badly injured, while testing the SpaceShipTwo's oxidizer tank (exploded WITHOUT the rocket motor solid propellant!!!) as reported in this The Flame Trench article.
Besides kill three persons and badly injured three others, the SpaceShipTwo oxidizer tank's explosion has devastated a very large area, as you can see in the image below (or other images you can find onthe Web) so, just imagine WHAT could happen to the SpaceShipTwo and to the eight passengers and pilots aboard (that should fly with this oxidizer tank AND a solid rocket motor few inches behind their butts...) if the same thing will happen in-flight, at rocket motor ignition!!!
This article is Copyright © 2010 Gaetano Marano - All rights reserved.
It can be republished only under permission of the author.
All images in this article are Copyright © Virgin Galactic, Scaled Composites and NASA.
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