The dream  lives on.

Space Tourism Will Survive Virgin Galactic Crash

Megan McArdle is a Bloomberg View columnist. She wrote for the Daily Beast, Newsweek, the Atlantic and the Economist and founded the blog Asymmetrical Information. She is the author of "“The Up Side of Down: Why Failing Well Is the Key to Success.”
Read More.
a | A

When I was eight years old, my father gave me my first science fiction book. As with many addictive substances, the first one was free, but the habit grew to consume a substantial share of my personal income and time. I fully expected to be among the pioneers to colonize space.

I was hardly alone in this childhood dream. And unlike me, some of the kids who read science fiction in their formative years went on to become fabulously wealthy in the tech industry. They're the customer base for Virgin Galactic, and other space tourism dreamers who eventually hope that we can, if not colonize the solar system, at least arrange for all-inclusive weekends at some of its finer points.

Such hopes may be dashed after the crash of Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise. Alex Tabarrok says that space tourism isn't ready for prime time, and probably never will be, because rockets are just too dangerous:

Unfortunately with two disasters this week, one of them sadly involving the loss of life, the safety of rockets continues to be far too low to support significant tourism. Virgin Galactic's VSS Enterprise, which crashed yesterday, was just on its 23rd powered flight suggesting a failure rate of perhaps 5%, in line with expected values. An earlier tragedy involving tests of the rocket motor killed 3 people.

As I said ten years ago, even a failure rate of 1 in 10,000 is far too high to support space tourism of the "fat guys with camera" variety and we are not yet close to a failure rate of 1 in 10,000.

I'm not so sure. Climbing Mt. Everest is fantastically dangerous, and people continue to do it, often paying tens of thousands of dollars for the privilege of risking their lives. True, heading into space via an explosive exothermic reaction seems to be even more dangerous than climbing Everest -- perhaps twice as dangerous, for the relevant age group. On the other hand, you don't have to spend months or years training to get on a Virgin Galactic tour, and when you finally reach your "summit," you will be comfortably strapped into a seat to enjoy the view, rather than a frost-bitten, hypoxia-addled mess. Your end, if it comes, will be in a few seconds or minutes rather than long hours of freezing cold. When you consider all the costs, which journey seems more expensive?

The question for me is not "will people be willing to take the risk," but "Will Virgin Galactic have enough paying customers to cover the cost?" Not that many people have so much money that $250,000 dollars sounds affordable. Risk-taking propensity is strongest among young men -- and unfortunately, wealth is highest among the old. There may be enough of a mismatch between willingness and resources that Virgin Galactic simply can't do enough business to stay in business.

Grisly though it will sound, one strong market for Virgin Galactic may be affluent people with a terminal diagnosis. If you're reasonably sure that you won't live more than a year or two, it might be worth the risk to live a lifelong dream. Unlike climbing Everest, this one doesn't require top-notch physical condition. However, I'm not sure how well this would work in practice. How many people would actually be willing to empty out the 401(k), and also, how many of them could stand the g-forces necessary to get them away from the surface of the planet?

I don't think we know yet how this will play out. Virgin Galactic is apparently offering refunds to anyone who wants one, however, so enlightenment may come soon.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Megan McArdle at mmcardle3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
James Gibney at jgibney5@bloomberg.net