Is space tourism safe?

Space Tourism Safety

Sir Richard Branson poses for a photograph during Australia's first private sign up to become a space tourist on Dec. 13, 2005.
Sir Richard Branson poses for a photograph during Australia's first private sign up to become a space tourist on Dec. 13, 2005.
Patrick Riviere/Getty Images

A recent poll of affluent Americans suggests that space tourism could create more than $1 billion in revenue by 2021 [source: FAA]. It's obvious that people are interested and eager to see what it's like in space, and to many it's a dream come true, but no one doubts the risks inherent in such an industry.

On one hand, companies see space tourism as a profitable endeavor, so they want to move forward as quickly as possible in order to compete. On the other, accidents caused by overly hasty production could trouble the industry if the public sees it as too dangerous. In order to balance these two concerns, the U.S. government has weighed in on the subject.

The United States Code is a collection of general and permanent federal laws Congress keeps and amends when necessary. It's simply a big list of subjects, which includes laws in relation to labor, education, patents, food and drugs and, of course, transportation. Under the transportation section, Title 49, there are several subsections, one of which is Subtitle IX -- Commercial Space Transportation.

The year 2004 marked the turning point for space tourism, including the commercial space transportation laws. SpaceShipOne, the first private manned spaceship to launch higher than 328,000 feet twice within two weeks, won the $10 million Ansari X-Prize in 2004. Congress, meanwhile, recognized the potential the space tourism industry has. It passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, updating the law to include "human space flight" in the literature. The amendment notes that "the public interest is served by creating a clear legal, regulatory, and safety regime for commercial human space flight; and […] the regulatory standards governing human space flight must evolve as the industry matures so that regulations neither stifle technology development nor expose crew or space flight participants to avoidable risks" [source: FAA].

The organization called upon to follow those guidelines is the Federal Aviation Administration FAA, the same agency responsible for regulating the safety of commercial air traffic. Their job is a tricky one. Representatives from the FAA will attend every launch, evaluate every landing and work alongside people in the space tourism industry, but they aren't allowed to impose any safety regulations until 2012 unless there's a serious accident. Once a spacecraft is up in the air, the FAA has no say on what happens -- Congress feels this is the best way to allow the industry to expand in a short amount of time. The FAA also requires that space tourists should have to agree to act as "participants," not "passengers," during flights, since the expectations of safety will be lower on a space tour. Citizens must also agree not to sue the government if there's a fatal accident.

Because it's so early in development and the FAA can't control how companies design their vehicles, it's hard to say how safe or unsafe launching citizens into space will be. During a panel discussion over safety regulations, however, Tracey Knutson, a lawyer advising the FAA on the matter, said: "We're going to kill some people" [source: USA Today].

One company has already experienced setbacks with accidents. Scaled Composites, the same company that developed and launched SpaceShipOne, was conducting propellant flow tests on space tourism vehicles at the Mojave Air and Space Port in California on July 26, 2007, when an explosion killed three workers and injured three others [source:].

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  • "Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004." FAA. 2004. media/PL108-492.pdf
  • David, Leonard. "Explosion kills three at Mojave Air and Space Port." July, 27, 2007.
  • Davis, Robert. "Risky space tourism gets a boost from a hands-off FAA." USA Today. Oct. 16, 2007. 2007-10-16-space-tourism_N.htm
  • Price, Henry. "Commercial human space flight." Federal Aviation Administration. April 6, 2007.
  • "Space tourism: opening the space economy." National Space Society. March 2, 2007.­