It Was Safer Flying Against the Nazis…

Jeff Bell’s scorching editorial on Space Daily skewers the suborbital tourism market six ways from sunday, through a thorough disection of the risks and safety record of rocket-powered suborbital flight to date.

It doesn’t matter if your favourite beast is a rocketplane, DC-X lookalike, or spaceship one – he does an admirable job of ripping them apart.

I’ll be interested to see the reaction from the kool-aid crowd to this one.

Kudos, Jeff.

17 thoughts on “It Was Safer Flying Against the Nazis…

  1. My issue has been, since I started looking at investing in this area, that even if the technical case ran the table and avoided all the risks Mr. Bell points out, there’s still no business case. I can’t see a way to make any money at all in this area.

  2. there’s still no business case. I can’t see a way to make any money at all in this area.

    See the cat? See the cradle?

  3. Shubber,
    Jeff’s article was interesting, and while I do believe that first generation suborbital RLVs will be risky, I also think Jeff made several glaring factual errors in his post. Most importantly, his list makes it looks as though there were 5 X-15s, with 4 out of the 5 biting the dust. The reality is there were only 3 X-15s, and only one of them was actually destroyed. Several of the failures he listed didn’t destroy the vehicle or kill the pilot. Several of the failures were made due to it being very early in the rocket age (leather gaskets and LOX don’t mix), and a lot of them were due to trying to expand the envelope…And he ignored several examples of rocket powered aircraft that were a lot safer, including as Henry Spencer mentioned, a RATO kit for a passenger jet that was tested thoroughly enough that the FAA was willing to ok it for use with passenger flight.

    It sounds like a well researched paper until you start seeing all the facts that he bungled or misrepresented. But I guess pointing out inconvenient facts makes me one of those “kool-aid drinkin’ alt-spacers”.


  4. This is about the fourth or fifth article that Bell has written in the last year or so, all of them negative about the new space industry, to be riddled with factual errors. I mean, seriously, an experimental aircraft (the X is a hint) from the 1950s being compared to the suborbital passenger craft being worked on by numerous companies today?

    I suppose that a stopped clock is right twice a day, so eventually if he keeps whacking away at the new space industry he’ll find something that will stick. Until he does, I’m going to treat Bell the same way I treat Hoagland, and ignore him.

  5. Ed, the reason Jeff had to rely on data from an old X vehicle is because there are only paper dreamships in the current realm to choose from otherwise. I challenge you to name 2 (or even 1) currently flying suborbital vehicle (and airplanes don’t count) that could be used to provide more current operational data.

    Take your time – you’ll need it.

  6. AmberJane, you have nailed it again, but the blindly faithful will trash you for doing so.

    If a younger, high income, interested professional isn’t the target market for suborbital flight, who is? The old rich farts with hypertension and questionable AV conduction? When the vast majority of the public is not interested in space, the market numbers for suborbital flights make no sense. A number of prepaid deposits held in escrow are meaningless.

    An Australian academic recently did credible market research directly supporting your opinion about preferring orbital to suborbital flight. But, like all dissenters to the party line, he is defined as wrong. Just like Dr. Hertzfeld is wrong on economics according to the true believers.

    Trying to refute Dr. Bell’s argument with logic based on examples of RATOs (low performance, low energy density) and failure to understand that some severely damaged X-15s were rebuilt using the same tail numbers is both ignorant and silly.

    From a business standpoint, are we to accept a hypothetical PowerPoint spaceplane over a tangible data history spanning more than 1/2 century? Which is the more valid approach to guessing reliability numbers? The challenge to the alt.spacers is to prove us wrong: Get the investment capital, build and test and prove the sceptics wrong. Quit arguing about how many angels are dancing on the head of a pin and PROVE US WRONG. If Dr. Bell had used the column headings “major event” instead of “loss” some of the criticism could have been avoided.

    We have recently been treated to the spectacle of a BS level engineering space cadet taking on a PhD aeronautical engineer with extensive personal flight test experience and a faculty slot in the UC system over pros and cons of different flight configurations with “opinions” on one side and a wealth of peer-reviewed literature on the other.

    I have put my money where my mouth is and have invested in several companies. Their business plans and structures were clearly flawed, but I hoped that over time they would grow into acting like real businesses. My hopes have not been realized after 4 years. Reading their 5 year projections today is amusing.

    You are correct that investment opportunities are very few and very far between. In my opinion, sure to be trashed as ignorant and ill-informed, the commercial case will not be closed until cheap orbital access is achieved. Suborbital joy-riding will probably not do it. If the space-geeks want capital they have to convince people who think like the Cynics to part with theirs or raise it in other ways. Arguments with ad hominem attacks and distorting logic, omitting inconvenient observations, and the like is best left to the politicians and news media, not to Kool-Aiders frustrated by those who have the wherewithall to fund ventures but can’t see the business case closing.

    Finally, it was amusing to see Rand Simberg’s final dig at you (“Have you changed professions from plastic surgeon to aerospace market researcher?”). This is especially silly – insult a person who brings interest, enthusiasm, and potential investment capital to the table because he or she asks a perfectly reasonable question (“What am I missing?”). Great way to encourage investment in the field, Rand. I suspect Rand has no concept of the analytical resources surgeons and other high income/high net worth people can bring to bear for market research, analysis, etc. as they consider investments – including fliers.

    For your further illumination, get Dr. Livingston’s recent lecture at USC on the subject or better yet take him up on his long-standing offer to discuss your approach to investment analysis on his show. Given the way the community seems to operate, it is unlikely that anybody will call up and challenge you face to face. That will all occur behind your back.

  7. Greetings to those of you interested in this subject and the post by Dr. Bell. Dr. Jeff Bell is returning to The Space Show to specifically talk about his article which is the subject of this Cynics discussion. Jeff will be on the program live 7-8:30PM Pacific Time Thursday evening, March 15th. This will be your opportunity to call him and speak directly with Jeff to either show and tell him where he has gone wrong or if so inclined, to support and praise him. You can get all the details by going to and click on the Newsletter in the upper third of the page. The newsletter promoting this show will be uploaded Monday morning PDT, March 12th. If you have any questions about listening to the show, calling to speak to Jeff or anything related, send an email to me at Don’t miss out on your opportunity to challenge Jeff, to point out his “errors” and all of what so many are saying about his post on the various blogs. Step up to the plate and engage him directly. The only rule when calling The Space Show is politeness and no personal attacks allowed. Idea attacks are always fair game.

    I look forward to your making this a lively and spirited Space Show discussion with Dr. Bell.

    David Livingston, Host
    The Space Show

  8. Shubber,
    As I mentioned before, Jeff Bell did cherry pick data. If you add in other experimental and *operational* rocket powered aircraft from the past 40 years, the difference is a lot bigger. As someone brought up on the ameteur rocketry list, Jeff forgot several vehicles, including the French Mirage III aircraft that logged over 20,000 rocket powered flights, with over a 99% reliability…

    There was also a Navy rocket powered aircraft that logged something like 175 flights without failures.

    Basically, if you look at only part of the data, you can prove almost anything you want.


  9. Shubber, that’s saying that Bell has to rely on data from oranges because he hasn’t got data on apples.

    If he wants to make apples-to-apples comparisons, then he has to look at the data from SpaceShipOne. Three successful manned suborbital flights, no catastrophic failures, dozens of drop tests. The only failure in the entire SS1 program was a failure of landing gear, and that happened at a slow enough speed that the craft was reused after minor repairs.

    Yeah, I know that SS1 isn’t a currently flying suborbital vehicle – but neither are 55 year old X15s. I’d say that the less-than-five-year-old technology of SS1 is far more comparable to current technology than something that was tested back in the 1950s.

  10. OK guys, it’s put up or shut up time.

    All of this really evolved from a question about making a business case for suborbital rocket-powered space planes. Reliability is clearly a factor.

    Assume that I am an interested and sophisticated investor with legal, engineering, accounting, and investment advisor backup capable of putting in an 8 figure investment if I choose to do so as opposed to continuing to support medical research. Also assume that I am concerned about the intrinsic reliability of a rocket-powered commercial plane (not a rocket-assisted jet, but a fully rocket-powered plane). Convince me, a physicist and professor of physics turned professor of surgery with a 50 plus year interest in manned space flight and a track record as an angel investor in multiple space startups, that it can be done safely with “safely” defined quantitatively. Don’t try to convince some newly minted engineer or some space-geek. Convince me, old Johnny. Period.

    Use all the techniques of engineering analysis, lawyerly skills of argument, grant-writing experience, or anything else in your armamentarium. Ignore Dr. Bell or cite him as a counterexample to your argument. Your choice. Now convince me. Right here on this forum. Don’t forget to be civil and try not to bite the hand that can feed you if you make your case (otherwise known as the Rand Simberg Maneuver).

    Before you decline to respond on the grounds that I am too negative to be convinced, remember that I have invested in five entrepreneurial startups and in two academic engineering programs that are training the next generation of propulsion and GNC engineers. I put my success rate at about 50 percent in meeting my personal (not financial) goals. My financial success rate in this arena is closer to zero.

    Good luck. It is your move.

    Put up or shut up.

  11. …Jeff forgot several vehicles, including the French Mirage III aircraft that logged over 20,000 rocket powered flights, with over a 99% reliability…

    There was also a Navy rocket powered aircraft that logged something like 175 flights without failures.

    Basically, if you look at only part of the data, you can prove almost anything you want.

    You look at the parts of the data that are relevant, as in “apples to apples”. We’re talking rocketplanes here, not hybrids with rocket assist. In addition (including the Bells), all of the craft mentioned were built/financed/used by the military, where a much higher level of risk is part of the game.

    Show us a case where any of that machinery made it to the commercial aviation sector, flying paying passengers reliably and safely.

    Go ahead…we’ll wait…

  12. Tom,
    There was a RATO pack that was FAA certified for use with passenger aircraft. I’m not sure if it ended up being used very much (mostly because I believe it was for use on an aircraft that had some other issues and that was retired fairly quickly), but it was tested and demonstrated to a level of safety that the FAA felt was up-to-snuff for use in commercial passenger service.

    But I don’t know if that was what you were looking for.


  13. Well, Jon, that’s a start. Now, how about some specifics? What kind of engine is it? How much impulse? What sort of aircraft is it suited for? (How many passengers?) Since this RATO pack was in fact FAA certified, has anyone in considered using it in some sort of custom passenger-carrying craft, selling joyrides, as a way of subsidizing further development and raising public awareness?

    Or is reinventing the wheel our only option?

  14. I am surprised nobody has mentioned either Blue Origins or Virgin Galactic. The interesting thing to
    study is the adventure aircraft market of the
    1910-1930 time frame. Early aircraft were
    phenomenally dangerous and lacked range and payload to be practical transportation.
    Certainly some of these vehicles were sold to
    the wealthy, and, that the joyride business
    did exist in the 1920’s. I would be curious
    to see if any of the joyride aircraft were
    profitable businesses and how many aircraft
    companies were started to service that market.

    Is this the kind of analysis you were looking for,
    Dr Jurist?

  15. That is a start on the analysis I had in mind. Differentiating between rocket-powered vehicles and rocket-assisted jet aircraft is also a necessity because the rocket-assists used low performance hardware.

  16. one more factoid,

    Air mail flights of the 1920’s were far more hazardous then flying combat in the Great War.

    Lack of nav aids, poor weather reporting aides
    and very limited design but the air mail market
    trained a legion of pilots and paid for
    the airlines.

    The question is how od you haul the mail?

  17. The question is how od you haul the mail?

    No, the question is WHAT mail is there to haul..?

    The problem with analogies used by alt.spacers is that they so often fail as soon as you go past the surface.

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