Want Versus Need; Space Tourism Vs “Proper” Space Exploration

There is another emerging complaint about the activities of Virgin Galactic that I am seeing that I feel I must address.  This is illustrated in a comment in my rebuttal to the Wired article, but is in the same vein as the Wired article, related to “tourism” and whether or not that is worth risking one’s life on.  On a very shallow surface one might be tempted to separate, as the commenter did (not disparaging, just relating) that there is a difference between developments that need to be done versus those that people want to do.  To me there is absolutely no difference between the two and it is the history of the development of aeronautics that gives me the confidence to make that statement.  I responded to the comment, which I replicate here.  This is not to disparage in the least the writer, but to respond to the larger mindset that I see in other places that is well represented by his comment.

Good response. But I’m still left wondering. Why is it worth dying for? That’s in your title, but it doesn’t appear in the text. “The more we do in space, and this includes the few minutes in space that Space Ship 2 will provide, will do more to promote people to think about what else we can do, and how much farther we can go than perhaps any other activity currently going on in commercial space.” I’m having a hard time parsing that sentence, but I think what you’re saying is that dying in space helps promote people to think. I find that a curious conclusion.

It is correct to risk life to do hard things that NEED TO BE DONE. Not completely clear from your response what it is that needs to be done. Making a settlement on the Moon for $5B certainly doesn’t need to be done. At least, that justification has never been clearly laid out.

This SS2 enterprise is founded on tourism. Is it worth dying so tourists can get a thrill? Actually, risk is often part of thrill, so I have to suspect that this unfortunate episode will actually help marketing for SS2. But marketing SS2 doesn’t need for people to die.

This is my expansion on my reply to his comment.


One person’s want is another person’s need. We did not need barnstorming in the 1920’s but the increase in public interest that was brought from thousands of farmers, city folk, and others who got to fly for the first time in a Jenny helped set the cultural and technological stage for the commercial aerospace age, even though it was the 1970’s before more than 15% of the American public flew.  It was a former barnstormer named Lindbergh that flew a craft that only he could love alone across the Atlantic and thus ushered in the age of intercontinental air travel (and it was for a cash prize no less, and was the inspiration for the Ansari X-Prize won by Spaceship 1, the predecessor to the SS2 lost this week)

There is a book that illustrates the intertwinement of want and need that is about the foundation of what we call aeronautics. It is called “With Brass and Gas” and a couple of quotes from this book, which is a compendium of newspaper and other articles of the era on the subject of want/need in opening the frontier of the air…

With Brass and Gas; a Look at the Formative Age of Aeronautics
With Brass and Gas; a Look at the Formative Age of Aeronautics

…In the meantime, balloon ascensions have grown to be of a daily occurrence, and many who have had no experience whatsoever are rushing madly into the business. As a necessary consequence, we must expect to read of many deplorable casualties. In yesterday’s Herald we had accounts of two ascensions which were attended with great risks to the aeronauts. In the one case, the balloon exploded; but in descending to the earth, it acted as a parachute, breaking the force of the fall…

The aerial excursionist were perfectly cool, and conversed together during the descent. But for the few seconds after the explosion, when the car and the remnants of the balloon were swaying alternately above each other, their fears could not be suppressed.

In the other, the balloon was torn by coming in contact with trees, and those in the car narrowly escaped with their lives.  The business is now in danger of being entirely overdone, and thus confidence in the final success of aerial navigation, instead of being increased, is being much diminished.

The point is that these people think that it is worth dying for, no matter what you or I may think.  This is at the end of the day what it is about.  The freedom to experiment, the freedom to fail, and yes, the inevitable deaths that will occur along the way. It was exactly the same in the era of ballooning, but at the beginning of the civil war it was the technologies developed by the aeronauts and their balloons that gave the north a decided advantage in aerial surveillance.

A LOT of people died in the ballooning age and a majority were experimentalists that made their living servicing tourism.  Read the book for the incredibly interesting details of how this developed.  The term “aeronaut” and “aeronautics” was invented by these balloonists and the journalists that wrote about them.  Thousands of people followed their exploits, and yes their critics were of the same vein as my commenter above.  However, what they could not see from the immediacy of the day, what in hindsight has been shown to be incredibly important precursors to our entire modern society of rapid air and even space travel.

Also, it was the technology advances of the private aeronauts like Thaddeus P. Lowe that echo down to the day. The Water-Gas shift method of making hydrogen C + H2O + heat = CO + H2, which is the preferred method of making industrial hydrogen today was invented to make gas for balloons.  It was also the limitations of balloons, such as the almost complete inability to accurately steer them that started a many people, including a couple of bicycle shop owners thinking about powered flight.

Thus the life of a private aeronaut, who used tourism to fuel the revenues for his further experimentation in balloons for practical cargo type operations.

Here is his Wikipedia entry…


Also, in one of those incredible “Connections” type of completely unpredictable historical amazing effects, Pancho Barnes, who (if you remember the movie the right stuff), who owned the happy bottom riding club outside of Muroc (now Edwards AFB in Palmdale) was the GRANDDAUGHTER of Thaddeus Lowe. She was an amazing female pilot of the barnstorming age, who in her Wikipedia page…

Florence Lowe “Pancho” Barnes (July 22, 1901 – March 30, 1975) was a pioneer aviator, the founder of the first movie stunt pilots’ union. In 1930, she broke Amelia Earhart’s air speed record.[2] Barnes raced in the Women’s Air Derby and was a member of the Ninety-Nines. In later years, she was known as the owner of the Happy Bottom Riding Club, a bar and restaurant in the Mojave Desert, Southern California, catering to the test pilots and aviators who worked nearby.[2]

Thus the point is that you and I today have absolutely no idea where this will end up and what the contribution of SS2 and Virgin Galactic will be to humanity. As was the case in the ballooning age and the barnstorming age of airplanes, these activities helped to provide the foundation for our technological society today.  Thus there can be no separation between want and need in the context of tourism versus exploration or any other endeavor for that matter as we never know where one or the will lead.

The same is true about the comment regarding the $5 billion for a lunar development.  You may not see that it needs to be done but many of us who give our lives to these types of activities certainly do.  I am quite positive, especially after meeting him several years ago, that Richard Branson sees a vision that goes well beyond just the tourism aspect of the Spaceship 2 flights.  Richard in his heart harkens back to the barnstormers and he has much of the showman of that age in him, and that is a good thing.

All of us are looking to continue pushing the boundaries of what is possible as we know that these advances will help to continue mankind’s upward move.  This is what is amazing about freedom, we who want to do things have the right to do them, and if there are those who go with us, who are willing to risk their time, their fortunes, their honor, and yes their lives, who is there to demand that we not do so?  Or worse yet, to demand that we expend our energies on projects that others think more worthy, thus making us slaves, and not free men and women.


3 thoughts on “Want Versus Need; Space Tourism Vs “Proper” Space Exploration

  1. The biggest cause of death from activities related to employment is road traffic accidents. We don’t differentiate between someone getting killed delivering vital supplies to a hospital, and somebody getting killed delivering party hats. Nor do we call for the use of roads to be restricted to those people driving for a “worthy cause”. Delivery drivers are just doing a job – as are test pilots. Every death is a tragey, and measures should always be taken to minimise danger – but these guys were doing the job they wanted to do. We should all just be grateful for that, learn some lessons, and move on.

  2. Compared to regular airline flight (which, of course still has crashes) commercial, routine spaceflight is still in the barnstorming/air postal route age. Spacecraft are flimsy. Engines are underpowered (requiring flimsy spacecraft). The flight envelope is not well explored. The number of total flights in the envelope is still very low. Things are still new. And new regimes will kill ya.

    The number of pilots who were killed in training accidents per flight hour prior to WW II was HUGE and stayed that way until the war when mass training and mass flying taught the lessons needed for relatively safe air flight. Spaceflight is not at the WW I level, but it’s still not at the WW II level. Spacecraft test pilots will continue to die and, frankly, so will passengers until the comparable lessons have been learned.

    ANYONE who thinks that getting into any Branson spacecraft is anything but a calculated risk with significant odds of failure, is fooling themselves. That doesn’t mean don’t do it, but it means know what to expect. It also means that it is as worthwhile to risk your life today as it was back in the 20’s. It’s just that society has become so risk adverse that anything that might take a life has to be stopped as not worth it. That is a culturally bankrupt philosophy. New things are inherently dangerous and people have to accept that they will remain that way for quite a while until they cease being “new” and become “commonplace”.

    Spaceflight is so expensive that it will be a long time before it becomes commonplace, so people, sadly, will continue to die. But just like air travel, fewer and fewer will die as we fly more and as spaceflight becomes more commonplace. But you can’t have one without the other. If you are not willing to fly frequently and risk lives, then you won’t fly at all and spaceflight will never become commonplace and the risks will remain high.

    This is a sad day, to be sure. But there will be others like it. There have to be or there won’t ever be a day where this sort of thing isn’t a regular part of the business of spaceflight.


  3. Apollo would never have gotten to the Moon without the Apollo 1 accident. It was a devastating lesson, but one that had to be learned the hard way. Same here. While our prayers go out to everyone at Virgin and Scaled I am heartened to think that there is some engineer looking at video and data asking himself/herself “what did we miss.” There will be better days.
    Just wish that Virgin had something resembling a real PR office. Couldn’t have handled that part of the accident worse if they tried.

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