Discrediting Space Tourism Insults the People Who Risk Their Lives for It

This artist's rendering provided by World View Enterprises on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 shows their design for a capsule lifted by a high-altitude balloon up 19 miles into the air for tourists.

This artist’s rendering provided by World View Enterprises on Tuesday, Oct. 22, 2013 shows their design for a capsule lifted by a high-altitude balloon up 19 miles into the air for tourists. World View Enterprises/AP

I am writing this while sitting in a commercial airplane typing on a laptop that is wirelessly connected to the internet, drinking a chilled glass of clean water. The numerous technologies needed to make this situation possible are mind blowing to me as an engineer. That I am thousands of feet off the ground at this moment is amazing to me and was beyond the wildest dreams of my relatives just a few generations ago.

Last week was a devastating week for spaceflight.

On Tuesday Orbital Science’s Antares rocket, en route to the International Space Station with supplies and scientific experiments, exploded. On seeing the first images from Wallops island, my thoughts went to the ground crew on site at the launch. It was with great relief that I read that no injuries were caused by this explosion. Just three short days later, I saw the horrible news of the crash of SpaceShipTwo which, unlike Antares, was a vehicle with a crew. It wasn’t long before there was confirmation that one pilot had been killed and the other was en route to a hospital. A few hours later, I watched my husband (wearing an astronaut costume he had planned weeks earlier) trick-or-treating with our daughters, and it was impossible not to think of the family whose test-pilot father isn’t coming home. As an engineering professor I also spent time thinking of the team of engineers who had worked on the vehicle in which he died.

When things go right, we sometimes applaud technology, engineers and the entrepreneurs that help fund these innovations. More often, we don’t even notice. (Here I should point out that SpaceShipTwo had previously flown over fifty times. I, and likely many of you, had not followed more than a handful of those flights; I had to do some digging to find the total number.) When things go wrong, our reactions are much more varied, and often much louder. There are always, and always should be, questions raised. I applaud the work that is currently being done by the agencies investigating the crash, and know that this situation will become a case study in engineering classes in the years to come. These investigations began immediately after the crash, and will likely continue for many months, if not years, to come.

AnnMarie Thomas

AnnMarie Thomas is an associate professor at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN. She has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering from Caltech, and an SB in Ocean Engineering from MIT. Follow her on Twitter @amptMN.

I am heartsick for the families and friends of the pilots, as well as for the engineers who are likely spending sleepless nights replaying the last five days in their heads. In addition to my sadness, I am angry. Why?

A few hours after the crash, I saw a tweet from WIRED with the words “Space tourism isn’t worth dying for,” and a link to a piece written by Adam Rogers. While it is likely that the phrase in the tweet wasn’t Rogers’ own words, the first sentence of his article declares that the death and injury were “in the service of a millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.” TIME had its own day-of-the-crash headline and article: “Enough with Amateur-Hour Space Flight.” In it, author Jeffrey Kluger describes Richard Branson as being “driven by too much hubris… and too little knowledge of the head-crackingly complex business of engineering.”

Let’s be clear here: SpaceShipTwo was not built by amateurs. Richard Branson didn’t build a space ship. If he did, with all due respect to him, I would strongly advise you not to ride in it, as Richard Branson is not an aerospace engineer. What Branson did was to hire one of the world’s most innovative and experienced aerospace companies to build the vehicle. Scaled Composites, the company that designed and was testing SpaceShipTwo, is over thirty years old. It was founded by Burt Rutan, designer of the Voyager aircraft, to design and test experimental aircraft. Since its founding, Scaled Composites has pushed the state of the art in both design and materials. It has over 200 highly skilled employees. Scaled Composites is a respected company, not one that just popped up overnight.

As someone who teaches engineering students, it has been impossible not to reflect on SpaceShipTwo this week. A colleague of mine, also an engineering professor, reminded me of the many advances in automotive engineering that came about because of attempts to break the land speed record. Those efforts were ones that involved many engineers, and also many of that era’s wealthy elite. Land speed record holders have come from families with backgrounds in diamond sales, fur trading, and other entrepreneurial endeavors. In 1904, William Vanderbilt, son of William Henry Vanderbilt and a millionaire himself, held the record at 92 miles per hour. At the time these attempts could easily have been dismissed as “thrill rides” by critics, but they also led to advances in tires, composites, and engine design.

In the piece that was posted on WIRED.com, the author repeatedly refers to the high cost of the tickets that have been sold for future flights on SpaceShipTwo, and that the pilots death “keeps rich people further away from weightlessness and a beautiful view.” I’d like to remind all of us that there are many examples of technology that was originally extremely expensive, and thus used initially by an admittedly wealthy subset of the population, that then became commonplace at multiple income levels. Consider, for a moment, the commercial airplane, computers, clean water and refrigeration— the technologies that I mention at the beginning of this article. There was a time when these were luxury items and some commentators couldn’t imagine that these would be available to the average person.

The cost of space and air travel research is high, and we are living in an era where NASA and NSF budgets for research are being slashed. As these budgets shrink, the role of private industry in researching and developing the technologies of the future is growing out of necessity. If someone has the money and interest to support such research and hires the highly skilled individuals capable of carrying out that research and testing, we may continue to see the kinds of exploration and discoveries once limited to massive government-sponsored efforts. Any of the “millionaire boondogglers” who bought advance SpaceShipTwo tickets were helping to fund the research that the Virgin Galactic and Scaled Composite teams are doing. Regardless of the goal of that research, even if it is “only” to develop new methods for short duration low altitude space flight, I would not be so naïve as to claim that there are no other possible uses for the technologies that will be developed in the process. As a follow-up article in WIRED made clear on Friday, there are myriad reasons why Virgin Galactic’s mission advanced science and technology.

This brings me back to the original article that caught my eye on this topic. What gives any of us the right to decide for others what is, or is not, worth dying for? Last year I, as a longtime sailor and Ocean Engineer, read WIRED’s coverage of the 2014 America’s Cup. This year’s race was undertaken by multi-million dollar boats that reached never-before seen speeds. At this size and speed, these boats could be labeled both state-of-the art and also deadly. Andrew Simpson, a highly skilled sailor, was killed in a crash during one of the training runs. In all of my reading of WIRED and WIRED.com at that time, I do not once recall coming across any coverage that declared yacht racing “not worth dying for.”

At the university where I work, our students are given the option of joining the “Order of the Engineer” at graduation. Think of it as analogous to the medical profession’s Hippocratic Oath. It ends with the phrase “In the performance of duty and in fidelity to my profession, I shall give the utmost.” I have yet to meet an engineer who works in aerospace, or any other field in which human lives are at stake, who doesn’t do honor to this phrase (whether they are a member of the order or not).

The deceased pilot, Michael Alsbury, worked at Scaled Composites for over a decade and was also the copilot on SpaceShipTwo’s first powered flight in 2013. I have spoken to many test pilots, astronauts, and (undersea) submersible pilots. Never once have I met one who was not acutely aware of the risks inherent to their profession and had not made a well-considered choice to do this work.While Rogers acknowledges that the pilots and engineers working on the Virgin Galactic vehicles are doing amazing things, I can’t help but read his attack on the reason behind the company’s endeavor as an attack on them as well. If you ask any of the highly skilled and trained engineers and test pilots who worked on SpaceShipTwo or its predecessors what they work on, I sincerely doubt that any of them will tell you that they are working on a “millionaire boondoggle thrill ride.” For author Adam Rogers to imply that that is what they were working on and WIRED to tweet that “Space Tourism isn’t Worth Dying For,” mere hours after one of those colleagues perished strikes me as irresponsible sensationalism.

We should all be very cautious about deciding, for others, which endeavors are worth doing, or even dying for. What we should be concerned about is informed consent. The teams that undertake these endeavors must ensure that participants understand the risks, and should do everything in their power to protect those participants. Moreover, they must ensure people uninvolved with the project are kept safe. At this point it seems that the testing was done in such a way that the public was not at risk, and that the participants knew what they were taking on. I am sad for everyone involved in this tragic event. My thoughts are with them as they decide how to move forward. I also urge authors to focus first on the technology and data, rather than immediately casting aspersions on the people working to build new technologies.

John Cleese on the Black Knight and Douglas Adams’ High Heels


Andy Gotts

Writer and comedian John Cleese is known worldwide as a member of the zany sketch comedy troupe Monty Python, as the laughably despicable hotel proprietor Basil Fawlty, and for countless other roles, including more recent appearances in the Harry Potter, James Bond, and Shrek films. His new memoir So Anyway… starts with his early childhood and focuses on the years leading up to the formation of Monty Python. One critic has branded the book “self-absorbed,” a charge Cleese dismisses.

“I sort of had the feeling that that was probably the point of an autobiography,” Cleese says in Episode 124 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “Maybe when I write the next autobiography he wants me to write it about someone else.”

Cleese recounts his youth with brutal honesty, judging himself a wimp as a child, physically and socially awkward as a teen, and conspicuously lacking in talent and enthusiasm as a young performer. His saving grace was his quick wit and ability to make people laugh, which earned him a spot in the Footlights at Cambridge and eventually landed him his early jobs in television. The book covers Cleese’s first marriage and his difficult relationship with his mother, but the focus is firmly on his life as an entertainer.

“There’s a little bit in there about my emotional life, where I think it’s interesting,” he says. “Because I think most of life is relatively boring, and I do try very hard not to be boring.”

Relationships with media figures such as David Frost and Peter Sellers play a larger role, which means the book may appeal most to aspiring writers and comedians, who can learn from Cleese’s example that less talented performers can nevertheless excel if they think hard about what makes comedy work, as Cleese clearly has.

“The primary purpose of the book is to make people laugh,” he says. “And I think there are stories in there that are as funny as any I’ve told.”

Listen to our complete interview with John Cleese in Episode 124 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast (above), and read some highlights from the interview below.

John Cleese on meeting Douglas Adams:

“I met Douglas two or three times. I was introduced to him on one occasion, I remember, and I noticed how tall he was. About four days later I went to a party—Graham [Chapman] was there, I remember—and suddenly Douglas appeared, and we had a long chat. But what surprised me was that he was towering above me. Now, I’m six-four and a half, and I was quite surprised that he seemed to have grown. But I noticed after we’d been chatting for some time that he was wearing four inch high heels, and I was thinking that this was very bizarre. I’ve never met a very tall man who wore high heels before, but I didn’t like to ask him—I didn’t know if it was a joke or what. I subsequently knew him a bit. He asked me to do a voice for his computer game, for which he had great hopes. And apparently his friends in the computer business told him that the time of that type of game had passed, but he’d put an enormous amount of work into it—in fact, I think he’d done so much work that he was unable to pay me for doing the voice of the bomb, but I did it anyway, in exchange for a Chinese meal.”

John Cleese on discussing Life of Brian with Bible scholars:

“I was fascinated to find that the serious academics there—including guys whose books I’ve read, since I’m interested in the subject, like Bart Ehrman—they said that the movie itself had actually influenced academic thought, and I found that hard to credit, but they told me absolutely genuinely that that was the case. But I think that this is because people, whatever discipline they’re in, get slightly stuck in the accepted norms of that discipline, you know? And when I said to one very senior cleric that it seemed to me that the Sermon on the Mount was all about trying to reduce the power of one’s ego, which seems to me exactly what it’s about—it doesn’t say ‘blessed are the powerful’ or ‘blessed are the rich,’ it’s not about power, it’s about the opposite of power—and he found that quite revolutionary. So it’s stuff I’d like to get more interested in. But the fact is that anybody who thinks that the Bible was breathed into existence by God just hasn’t read about the history of the Bible, and how various conferences or synods or whatever you want to call them chose which books would be the definitive version by a vote, and certain books were excluded, like the Gospel of Thomas, which I think are rather more interesting than Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.”

John Cleese on Monty Python and the Holy Grail :

“There was a lovely guy named ‘Jumper’ Gee who died at the age of 101, and who managed to fight in both World Wars—I never came across anyone else who did that. He was a good teacher of English and I liked him enormously, and he would go off on these wonderful excursions where they were nothing to do with the subject he was teaching, and he told this story about a wrestling match that had taken place in ancient Rome. … There was a particularly tough contest in progress, and one of the wrestlers, his arm broke—the difficulty of the embrace was so great that his arm broke under the pressure—and he submitted because of the appalling pain he was in. And the referee sort of disentangled them and said to the other guy, ‘You won,’ and the other guy was rather unresponsive, and the referee realized the other guy was dead. And this was an example to ‘Jumper’ Gee of the fact that if you didn’t give up you couldn’t lose, and I always thought this was a very dodgy conclusion, but it stuck in my mind for years, and so probably 15 years later when I was writing for The Holy Grail with Graham, I told him about that, and that’s where the Black Knight sketch came from.”

John Cleese on creativity:

“I lecture on creativity, and I point out that if you could be creative by applying ordinary logic, then anyone who was logical could do it, and the fact is they can’t. There are some extraordinarily logical people who actually are not terribly good at being creative. Creativity comes from the unconscious, that’s where most of the really unusual and special ideas come from. … If you take someone like Edison, who was a pretty extraordinary scientist, he had a particular methodology to his inventions. He thought that he got his best inventions when he was on the verge of falling asleep, and he used to sit in a chair holding ball bearings in his hands, with a brass bowl under his hands, so that when he fell asleep he’d drop the ball bearings and the noise would wake him up, and in that way he could spend quite a long period of time in that twilight area between being very tired and actually falling asleep, and that’s when he said he got most of his ideas. Now that’s clearly not relying on logic.”

A Broke F1 Team Is Using Crowdfunding to Keep Racing

Competing in Formula One is notoriously expensive even for lousy teams, and not one but two teams have been driven into bankruptcy this season. One of them, Caterham, has missed two races and is so desperate that it’s turning to fans to help it reach the season finale at Abu Dhabi. To do this, it is trodding a well-worn path followed by entrepreneurs, do-gooders, and the occasional celebrity: It’s started a crowdfunding campaign to raise £2.35 million ($3.72 million).

You laugh, but within hours of its launch on Crowdcube, an English crowdfunding site, the campaign had raised nearly £300,000, 12 percent of the goal Caterham must hit by November 14. “That’s not a bad start,” says Finbarr O’Connell, Caterham’s interim principal and administrator, the UK equivalent of a Chapter 11 trustee.

O’Connell has been given the difficult task of doing whatever necessary to save the F1 team and the jobs it provides to scores of people—none of whom were paid on October. Those people will “have to move on” if someone doesn’t buy the team, and soon. It’s hard to attract investors when your cars can’t even race.

And those investors must have deep pockets. Running a team costs between $110 million and $130 million a year for an outfit at the back of the grid; highly competitive teams might spend far more than that. For large corporations like Mercedes-Benz and Red Bull, that easily fits within the marketing and motorsports budgets. But for independent manufacturers like Caterham with individual owners, O’Connell says, you’ve “got to know you’ve got the sponsorships every which way sorted out to fund that.”

The economics of the sport make survival dicey for all but the wealthiest teams, which creates something of a vicious cycle because the sport’s revenues are allocated to teams based on their performance. It takes money to win, and only winners make money. This season, Caterham hasn’t placed higher than 11th in any race, so it is dead last in the points, with a grand total of zero. Mercedes, on the other hand, has more than 600 and locked up the constructor’s championship with three races left in the season (its two drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg handily lead the race for the driver’s championship). “As more wealthy teams progress, and as they have got better cars, the other teams clearly try to keep up,” O’Connell says. “That puts them under cost pressures.”

Attracting Attention

Raising the money is a temporary solution. “This is a one race project, just to show the team off,” O’Connell says. Giving Caterham a future means finding a new owner, and the best way to tempt interested buyers is by proving the team can still race. There are interested parties, including one wealthy Middle Eastern family, but they don’t want a broken business, O’Connell says. Caterham has “ironed out” the problems with the car, and getting on the grid at Abu Dhabi “shows them it is completely there.”

The Crowdcube campaign could double as a rally the troops moment, giving Caterham’s fans a chance to play a role in a sport where the economics are far beyond most millionaires. It’s also the chance for fans to grab some rare goodies. Rewards for investors include standard F1 swag—baseball caps, t-shirts, polo shirts—but also pit team overalls, boots, and gloves.

For more money, you can actually take home chunks of Caterham’s 2012 and 2013 race cars: £2,200 gets you an aerodynamic bit called a turning vane. You can buy a nose cone for £5,500 or a rear wing for £3,000. Someone’s already claimed the front wing from the 2013 car for £2,500, though Caterham won’t say who plunked down the cash. You have a better chance of picking up one of four bargeboards from the 2012 car, for just £400—that’s cheaper than the overalls. For £1,000, you can have your name painted on the car, in print size that should be big enough to see on television.

The risk that comes with crowdfunding is that it’s all or nothing. If Caterham doesn’t hit the ambitious £2.35 million mark, it doesn’t get a tuppence, and no one gets a nose cone. But if it works, Caterham could survive, and will at least have one more race. “Everybody who helps this will look at the team on the grid at Abu Dhabi and say, ‘That’s my team,’” O’Connell says.

Ken Block’s Wildly Modded ’65 Mustang Puts Out a Nonsensical 845 HP

If you haven’t lost a few hours to watching Ken Block’s gymkhana video series, you probably should start now. Without spoiling the spectacle, the episodes follow Block as he uses overpowered cars to terrorize racetracks and public roads by drifting within inches of barriers and occasionally humans.

The star of Block’s next video, “Gymkhana 7,” is a heavily modified 1965 notchback Mustang with 6.7-liter Ford V8 overflowing from the hood. Also known as the Hoonicorn, it produces a nonsensical 845 horsepower. That’s like tying 845 adult horses to a car, and have them all start running at the same time. The best part is, it’s in the hands of a guy who can handle all that power.

“I’ve always been a Mustang fan,” says Block, “but especially the old Mustangs. It’s the original muscle car.” He wanted to find a car that would even appeal to kids, like a big Hot Wheels car. Out of respect for the vehicle, Block turned to eBay for a banged up model to work with. “I didn’t want to take a nice restored one,” he says, “so we worked had to find one that was beat up.”

he huge engine is set far back in the hood to accommodate the drivetrain.

The huge engine is set far back in the hood to accommodate the drivetrain. HOONIGAN RACING DIVISION

That was the start of two years of work by Block’s team Hoonigan, ASD Motorsports in Charlotte, North Carolina, and with RTR, a Michigan-based company that specializes in tuning Mustangs. Underneath the classic body, the tubular chassis, roll cage, and three-piece wheels are all custom. The tires are specially-made Pirelli Trofeo Rs. The body panels are carbon fiber. The side fender flares give the car a wider stance, which translates to better handling at speed. A six-speed transmission sends the motor’s 845 horsepower to an all-wheel-drive system.

One of the biggest challenges was adding the all-wheel-drive system to a car with such a big engine. “No one’s really put an AWD system in this sort of car,” Block says. The huge engine is set far back in the hood to accommodate the drivetrain. The team also made sure to make the suspension is nice and soft. By being able to compress the shocks and send all the weight to the front of the car, Block can easily get the rear wheels loose and drift as needed (which is a lot).

The video series in which the Mustang will make its debut started in 2008. Block, a pro rally driver and co-founder of DC Shoes (which sponsored the videos) went viral, driving around industrial sites with trains and cranes for obstacles to dodge, making the tires scream through turns. Our personal favorite is “Gymkhana 6,” in which Block takes a blown-out Ford Fiesta through a desolate San Francisco, laying rubber around streetcars and catching air over intersections.

But given the glory of this Mustang, we’re thinking Gymkhana 7, whenever it comes out, could top even that.