Oct. 8, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Hands off our spaceships! This week started out with a bang for the private-sector space travel industry: Not only did SpaceShipOne earn a $10 million payoff for proving that a reusable, passenger-capable plane could make it into outer space, but top officials from the Federal Aviation Administration stood alongside rocket entrepreneurs to herald the opening of the new frontier.

After such an auspicious start, the week ended with a fizzle: Legislation to regulate this infant industry was put on hold , due to a controversy over what kinds of safety standards should be enshrined in the bill.

If the e-mail in the Cosmic Log mailbox is any guide, would-be passengers are willing to take on more risk and less regulation in order to get a suborbital taste of the final frontier. Here's a substantial sample of the feedback sent in response to Monday's item on spaceflight regulation:

Bernie Gallagher: "I think the flights will be extremely dangerous, but I don't think the government should be involved at all — in a free country, it's not the government's place to be every citizen's collective mommy!"

Ray Stoyle: "I personally don't have the money to go (or I'd seriously think about it), but why not let folks go if they want to travel? While I'm not hunkered down in an Idaho log cabin, in this area I feel the government is stifling the future by involving itself in the process. If those with the money work out and sign an informed-consent agreement — let 'em go, and the best of luck to everyone."

Drury C. Nimmich Jr., U.S. Navy commander (retired); assistant director of admissions, The Citadel: "Seems to me that if I want to go and can afford it, I get to go. The passengers the barnstormers flew around in the '20s sure didn't sign an 'I know the risks' form. And no one asked me if I knew the risks when the Navy loaded me in a plane and shot me off the deck of a carrier. The regulation, if we must have one, must allow the individual to make a free choice to go; the firm running the show will certainly control risks (bad safe record = bad sales). Do we ask everyone getting on a 737 if they know risks of a mishap in flying in a 30-year-old aircraft? Is the risk any greater on a flight to orbit, or are they just perceived risks based on outdated data from the '60s space race?"

Army Sgt. Richard Beck: "Our esteemed government has determined when a person reaches age 21 she/he is totally responsible for their own actions within our laws. People who smoke tobacco are certainly aware of the risks, people who drink alcohol know the dangers, and people who operate motor vehicles understand the inherent hazards associated with it, and the government must let them alone to do their thing.  Anyone who chooses to venture into space travel is quite capable to assume the risk, and the government safety-heads have no business to say anything about it. As long as the space travel service takes every precaution imaginable, anyone with the cash and excellent physical health must be allowed to follow their dreams in the Land of the Free."

Airman 1st Class Paul Becotte: "Did the airplane industry need to apply for a separate license for each flight?  Did they need to have customers sign 'fly at your own risk' waivers? The legislation is fine for now, but if this industry is ever going to evolve into something more then a stunt, the oversight needs to be scaled back. The risks of having a spaceship fall on me in my house are far less than those of a commercial airliner, and if someone chooses to take a risk to ride on unproven technology, that’s their business, and not the government's.  Nobody is being deceived here, and that is the only thing the government should have to say about the matter."

Dayle: "...All they should be required to do is point out that spaceflight is not easy, not cheap, and already has claimed many lives, in spacecraft that governments were paying a lot of money with teams and teams of testers to make sure they worked right.  Point out the 'issues' that SpaceShipOne had on its first couple of test flights.  The government drives a tank, the public will be riding in a taxi.  It takes a lot less to destroy a taxi than a tank, but that doesn’t mean you should wait for a tank. Then, if they still want to go, by all means, let them! Some will die … nothing can prevent that. But from each we will learn more on how to make those deaths further and further apart.  If people simply wanted to be safe ... they would never leave home … of course eventually they still die, so at least let them pursue a dream while they can. Personally, I’m waiting for cheap orbital flights.  Then $100,000 will seem cheap. Or maybe I’ll win the Powerball before then. …"

Glenn McIntyre: "This nation was built on pioneers taking risks, many times unreasonable or uninformed ones. Where would we be if the British government had wanted to regulate the Pilgrims, obtaining informed consent of the risks involved. Or if the U.S. government had regulated westward expansion by requiring guarantees of safety and informed consent? Likely, Oklahoma would still be a territory. Remember, it's 'risky' just putting our feet on the floor in the morning. Let me, the individual, take the risk. Let me pay my quarter and ride the ride."

Brett King: "Risk is a relative concept. Many people believe that activities like bungee jumping, mountain climbing, scuba diving, recreational flying and parachuting are inherently risky. Of course, walking through Central Park in the middle of the night might also be perceived as carrying risk. While carrying risk, there are many ‘informed’ people who would find such risks acceptable for the reward of spaceflight. The public has a heightened appetite for the commercialism of spaceflight as a result of the X Prize, and ... there would be many, budget permitting, who would take the trip tomorrow given the chance. Is it safe? We will never know the safety record until there is an established track record of commercial flights. That won’t happen until the legislation is in place in any case — a classic Catch 22. Let the consumer decide — if there is demand, it will fly."

Doug Fingles: "It impresses me that the FAA should be so concerned about informed consent on the dangers of space travel, and then I wonder where the informed-consent form is for riding in an automobile, when 40,000 people a year die on our roads and highways. The best advice to keep progress moving forward is to refer to Shakespeare’s Second Part of 'King Henry the Sixth,' Act IV, Scene 2, where Dick says to Cade: 'The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.'"

Steve: "Regulations?  Get real — the first passengers are not mere consumers.  It's simple economics and demographics.  Even assuming that things go wrong, any passenger (and his/her family) with sufficient cash to have coughed up the estimated ($190,000) ticket price would recognize that he/she/they are on their own.  This is not Southwest Airlines.  It is obvious that from the outset no one could expect any legal remedy from whichever new and barely funded venture in this still-nascent industry may have provided the opportunity, however tragic that opportunity might have proven to be.  None of these outfits will be carrying insurance near the coverage provided by the policy that guaranteed the $10 million X Prize. (Face it: Even that insurer was betting against sweetness and sunshine.) Clearly the only sensible regulations in this new field would be those that broadly and clearly preclude any spurious claims that might be made by opportunistic and disingenuous passengers or survivors who have with their checkbooks demonstrated their awareness of the novelty and risks associated with this new technology.  The regulators should wait (as they historically have done) until the industry has matured."

Robert P. Dean Jr., U.S. Air Force senior master sergeant (retired): "The government is already getting ready to hamstring the fledgling private space industry. The first legislation even being considered is how and who to allow into space. What do they think they're going to do if we, the public, decide to go and just leave them behind? The U.S. government has no jurisdiction in outer space. Although Mr. Rutan and company feel great gratitude to the United States for allowing this event to occur, if I were them, I'd be looking for some little atoll in the Pacific to continue my development, away from the constraints that are surely going to be applied to them by the Feds. The U.S. government does not want the common citizen in space. They might lose control of him/us/me (if I could get the chance)."

John Gray: "As a pilot I am comfortable with the level of safety provided by a nominal (at any given moment) amount of FAA rules required to be followed by a pilot. Of course there is an almost unknowable amount of rules, but it's kind of like a God thing, where if He wanted to, He could fit the earth into a shot glass without changing the size of either. Guidelines are good. As far as risk, do you ever consider the risk of choking on an M&M candy?"

Nick: "The government must be involved in the certification. Any time a company is involved in a risky activity, and/or based on the profit motivation, the government must certify and hold that company totally responsible for the safety. The profit motivation, which is based on the animal's greediness, would be absolutely leading to cost-cutting corners to increase the profit, which will most likely affect — invisibly to the passenger — the safety! The average passenger could not possibly comprehend the complexity of the flight hardware, quality of performance, nor have the assurance that safety has been reasonably verified! Shuttle craft history of accidents, after multiple launches, is still indicative of the failures to test appropriately already known failures causing insulation debris. ... What does the 'homeowner passenger' know about the poor quality of the materials used by her greedy homebuilder — materials hidden behind the surfaces of the walls, or under the foundation of the house?"

Oct. 8, 2004 | 7:40 p.m. ET
Weekend field trips on the World Wide Web:
'Nova' on PBS: 'The Most Dangerous Woman in America'
The Economist: One grid to rule them all
Scotsman.com: 'Lost' Soviet shuttle lands in Germany
GeekPress Illusion of the Day: Rollers
The Onion: American robot's job outsourced to overseas robot

Oct. 7, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
New light on 'Black Sky': Just days after SpaceShipOne won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, the second part of the "Black Sky" TV documentary chronicles those history-making flights.

The show, airing tonight on the Discovery Channel, draws upon exclusive access to the SpaceShipOne team and in-flight video that the team's leaders, including spaceship designer Burt Rutan and billionaire backer Paul Allen, have described as stunning.

Tonight's hourlong installment, "Winning the Prize," follows up on the first part of the series, which was broadcast on Sunday. That first part traced the years-long buildup to the X Prize flights on Sept. 29 and on Monday . This time, the documentary crew had only three days to put the finishing touches on the documentary.

If you don't get the Discovery Channel on your cable system, or if you just want to add the saga to your video library, you can order the DVD for delivery in mid-November. By that time, you should also be able to get your hands on a SpaceShipOne of your own — at least the Estes model-rocket version, which looked impressive on display at the Mojave Airport. Estes representatives said the kits for SpaceShipOne and other X Prize rockets should be showing up in hobby stores within four weeks.

Oct. 7, 2004 | 3 p.m. ET
Your daily dose of science on the Web:
IEEE Spectrum: How the Titan mission was saved
Arizona Republic: Pickup powered by sunlight
National Geographic: Chimps use a tool kit
Wired: Robotic-fish researcher pulls in a prize

Oct. 6, 2004 | 9:15 p.m. ET
Astro ... not! Should anyone who goes to outer space be considered an astronaut? Not according to Cosmic Log correspondents who responded to Tuesday's item on the subject. The opinion was pretty much unanimous, siding with the Federal Aviation Administration's view that those who operate spaceships would get astronaut wings, while those who are just along for the ride would not. Here's a sampling from the e-mailbag:

Chris in Orlando, Fla.: "Just because a person with a quarter-million dollars wants to go to space for kicks does not earn him or her the right to 'space wings.' The astronauts and cosmonauts we know today have basically been in pursuit of working in space all their lives. They work on experiments that promote the health of humankind. They also spend six or more days up four times higher than these little paper planes. I would say it's like comparing the Wright brothers' plane with a Navy fighter jet."

Brandon in Memphis, Tenn.: "Passengers on an airplane are not issued a pilot's license, and neither should passengers to space. The 'astronaut' wings were given to the pilot of SpaceShipOne, not to a passenger. It is more of a trophy than a license."

Dan Mills: "Using the nautical analogy you suggested — passengers aren’t sailors, but each crewman, including everyone from the cook to the doctor, is a sailor every bit as much as the skipper. By analogy, the FAA is correct: The crews aboard spaceships are astronauts, the passengers are not."

Brian Ross, Anchorage, Alaska: "I think that it depends on who is doing the work. If you are part of the actual working crew, you are entitled to wings. I also think that there should be variations on the wings to designate status. Example: Army parachute badges change with experience. Why not make pilot wings and payload specialist wings? Passengers/tourists — just hold onto your ticket stub like a rock concert to show that you were there. Sorry, no wings."

Damian Tedrow, Spokane, Wash.: "The Argonauts were the crew of the Argo, remember? Hence it follows that you'd be an astronaut only if you were a member of the onboard crew, and not if you were a passenger. For example, I'd consider Clarke and Kubrick's space flight attendant to be 'crew,' and hence an astronaut. Same goes for Bones in 'Star Trek.' But if you only 'took a flight' (either to Seattle or the Sea of Tranquility), then you wouldn't be an astronaut. You'd be an astro-passenger. :-) In the cases of Tito and Shuttleworth, just answer the question: Did they participate in the mission more as crew or more as passenger?"

In the future, the yardstick could well be whether you're being paid, or whether you're paying. To cite another hypothetical example, I might go through nautical training and help out on a sailboat as part of an adventure-travel package I paid for. Would that make me a sailor? In a sense, it would ... when I'm chatting with the neighbors about how I spent my summer vacation. But I could brag a little louder if they were actually paying me to do the job.

Suborbital space passengers may not win their astronaut wings from the Federal Aviation Administration, but I'm sure they won't go home empty-handed, particularly when they're paying a six-figure fare. I can well imagine that Virgin Galactic would issue its own astronaut wings to suborbital space passengers, just as flight attendants might hand out plastic pilot wings to the kids aboard a 747.

I'm saving up readers' comments on suborbital flight regulations for Friday, as promised. But to conclude, here are some more general comments from Mark Annis of Concord, Calif., who was the first one in line for a parking spot in advance of Monday's winning X Prize spaceflight:

"On the road home it finally hit me: In three years' time, a British company will be taking ordinary citizens into space while NASA is only flying robots! NASA’s eagerness to bury the space shuttle is everywhere. All we hear from them is we can’t do this and we can’t do that. Today, there are only two countries that can put humans in space, and the United States of America isn’t one of them.

"I sincerely hope SpaceShipOne’s accomplishments over the last several days serve as a wakeup call for NASA managers. From this taxpayer’s point of view, ‘No Buck Rogers, No Bucks!’

"With the space shuttle, and now SpaceShipOne, returning from space by landing on a runway, this payer of the bills is not interested in talk of going back to parachute landings on either land or water. This is certainly not the ‘civilized’ way to return from space, and certainly not from Mars, or any other destination in the heavens."

Oct. 6, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Scientific stops on the World Wide Web:
IEEE Spectrum: The plan for SpaceShipTwo
Science at NASA: Building an electronic nose
Science News: The original microbrews
New Scientist: Virulent 1918 flu genes resurrected

Oct. 5, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
After the X Prize: Now that the $10 million Ansari X Prize has been won , the scene for suborbital rocket competition is shifting from Mojave, Calif. Over the next month, there may be follow-up launches in Saskatchewan and Washington state, but the X Prize Foundation is hoping the main event will be the annual X Prize Cup in New Mexico.

The cup competition isn't quite ready for prime time yet, though: New Mexico has committed $9 million to developing the spaceport that would serve as the event's home base, and International Fuel Technology is kicking in a six-figure contribution as the cup's first major sponsor — but the Southwest Regional Spaceport has yet to be built at Upham, N.M.

In the interim, next year's X Prize Cup exposition and the first planned competition in 2006 are to be held at the nearby White Sands Missile Range, which is already cleared for launch activities. The 2005 expo might be open to rocket planes that wouldn't necessarily go into outer space — such as XCOR Aerospace's EZ-Rocket. That could make the inaugural event more like the NASCAR-style rocket fest that enthusiasts have been talking about for months.

In order for real live space vehicles like SpaceShipOne to fly in New Mexico, they'd have to be licensed by the Federal Aviation Administration for that venue, said Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation.

Smith also said the FAA has received New Mexico spaceport's license application, and it's now being reviewed for completeness. If it's judged substantially complete, the agency will have 180 days to issue or withhold the license.

Would suborbital rocket teams from other parts of the world to take on the trouble and expense of competing in New Mexico? That may well depend on how big the purse turns out to be — and whether the suborbital space race continues to capture the wide public's attention.

Oct. 5, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Launch livery: In medieval times, you could look at a knight's livery to tell which side he was on. For example, if someone was wearing a red and blue coat with a badge depicting a boar, you knew he was fighting for Richard III.

During the SpaceShipOne launches in Mojave, it was the shirts and caps that told the tale: Spaceship designer Burt Rutan's team at Scaled Composites favored light yellow polo shirts. If you didn't know what billionaire backer Paul Allen looked like, you might have been able to pick him out by his dark blue SpaceShipOne baseball cap. Allen's team tended to sport dark blue SpaceShipOne polo shirts with gray trim.

X Prize team members were distinguished by their black "X" caps. Meanwhile, British billionaire Richard Branson and his team wore white long-sleeved shirts emblazoned with the Virgin Galactic logo — a look that was crisp and jaunty even in the Mojave heat.

Oct. 5, 2004 | 11 p.m. ET
Who's an astronaut? The Federal Aviation Administration has now awarded two sets of shiny astronaut wings for SpaceShipOne's flights above the 100-kilometer space boundary. Will those wings go to the future riders who reach outer space? No, says FAA Administrator Marion Blakey. The wings will be reserved for the "folks actually flying the aircraft."

That sparked a debate on the aRocket discussion forum: If private-sector space passengers aren't issued official wings, what about Russia's space passengers, such as Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth ? Some even wondered about NASA's shuttle payload specialists and mission specialists. Should they have gotten their wings? In all those cases, the fliers have undergone months or years of training for the flight, but private-sector space passengers will most likely receive advance training as well.

The debate could well point up how the personal spaceflight revolution will change the vocabulary, just as the personal computer revolution did. (Remember when a "word processor" was a person, not a program?) Does the fact that I took a flight home to Seattle today make me an "aeronaut"? Probably not, just as riding on a ferry doesn't make me a sailor. Should the word "astronaut" similarly take on a different shade of meaning? What do you think?

Oct. 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Regulating the rockets: When will the general public be able to buy a ticket for a suborbital spaceflight? That was the subtext for many of the events surrounding SpaceShipOne's victory in the suborbital space race this week. Government officials and space entrepreneurs agreed that the regulatory situation would have to be more settled before the space race for passengers and investors could really hit its stride.

The top priority is to protect the "uninvolved public," said Marion Blakey, head of the Federal Aviation Administration. The current licensing regime makes sure that launch companies minimizes the risk for innocent bystanders, and provides indemnification against harm.

But the licenses do not allow the rocket companies to take on passengers — which means it  wasn't realistic to expect SpaceShipOne designer Burt Rutan or X Prize backer Anousheh Ansari to take a back seat during today's flight. In fact, SpaceShipOne has used up five of the six flights allowed under its FAA license. Rutan would have to seek a renewal if he intends to use the license for more than one additional research flight, as he hinted during today's postflight briefing.

Legislation that would allow passengers to fly at their own risk is currently being debated behind the scenes by congressional staffers, but the regular session is expected to end this week, and it's unclear whether the bill could be approved during a lame-duck session.

The issue of informed consent is key, Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said during a launch-eve briefing at XCOR Aerospace at the Mojave Airport.

"The House bill, 3752, talks about providing the passenger with a safety record, as much data as we have ... in exchange for an informed-consent statement from a passenger that would say, 'I embrace this, I understand the risks, but I'm willing to take them. I still want to go,'" she said. "The kind of threshold that we will have to figure out how to achieve is the cognizance issue. How do we know that they understand the risk that they're taking?"

Richard Branson, head of the British-based Virgin Group, says people are already lining up to buy $190,000 tickets for seats on SpaceShipTwo vessels that won't be ready until 2007. How risky do you think those flights will be, and how much should the government be involved in regulating those risks? Feel free to let me know, and I'll print a selection of the responses on Friday.

Oct. 4, 2004 | 8 p.m. ET
Space-race morsels: The blue, white and gray M&M candies created to commemorate the X Prize may not melt in your hand — but in the heat of California's Mojave Desert, they will definitely crack in your car.

Bags of M&M's emblazoned with little rocket ships and the X Prize slogan ("Go") were among the giveaway items during the past week's series of X Prize flights at the Mojave Airport. The candies were part of M&M's sponsorship deal with the X Prize Foundation.

I picked up my first bag on the eve of last Wednesday's SpaceShipOne launch, but left them sitting in the car — trusting perhaps too much in the non-melting characteristics of the material. In the course of this experiment, those candy-coated chocolate morsels were, in engineering parlance, "tested to failure."

Many of the candy shells developed fissures, and yellowish droplets accumulated at the bottom of the bag. The next time bags were being handed out, I rushed the bag back to my motel room and laid them in the mini-refrigerator. I still haven't figured out the best way to get the souvenir cargo home on Tuesday.

By the way, some worried that the rocket ships on the candies might have looked so much like SpaceShipOne that the project would run afoul of licensing restrictions. But close inspection of the rockets reveal that they look more like the spacecraft in a "Duck Dodgers" cartoon.

The fine print: Looking for older items? Check the Cosmic Log archive. Share your perspective on cosmic subjects with Alan Boyle. If you link to this page, you can use http://cosmiclog.msnbc.com or http://www.cosmiclog.com as the address. MSNBC is not responsible for the content of Internet links.


Discussion comments


Most active discussions

  1. votes comments
  2. votes comments
  3. votes comments
  4. votes comments