Commercial space travel shares plenty of similarities with deep sea tourism: wealthy customers, tight spaces, far-flung destinations and waivers that clearly warn people they’re risking death by embarking on unregulated vehicles.
As the world dissects what went wrong with the doomed OceanGate submersible vessel, the craft’s lack of safeguards is raising alarms. The founder of the deep-sea tour group once called safety a “pure waste” and industry peers flagged the potentially “catastrophic” results of his “experimental” approach to ocean exploration.
Submersibles like the Titan are subject to little safety oversight, even less so when they’re in international waters. A similar regulatory regime — or lack of one — governs commercial human spaceflight. And while the private space industry hasn’t seen a disaster on the scale of the OceanGate fiasco, the risks are there.
“There’s a strong concern that not having those safety regulations is going to mean some fly-by-night, shady operations that result in customers being injured or potentially killed,” said Brian Weeden, director of program planning for the Secure World Foundation, a space sustainability nonprofit pushing to curb space junk and for better space traffic management, among other things.
Under current US law, the Federal Aviation Administration can’t impose safety standards on commercial spacecraft that carry people to space. That may change as soon as later this year, unless the current law is extended.
Commercial passengers who strap into a vehicle operated by Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. or Blue Origin LLC — the only companies that currently provide space tourism flights — do so under an “informed consent” framework. That means they acknowledge that the government has not certified commercial ships for safety and that “participation in space flight may result in death, serious injury, or total or partial loss of physical or mental function.”
SpaceX, however, developed its Crew Dragon passenger capsule under NASA’s safety requirements, as the company uses the vehicle to send the agency’s astronauts to the International Space Station.
Virgin Galactic declined to comment and Blue Origin and SpaceX did not respond to requests for comment.
This informed consent regime began in 2004 with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which imposed a regulatory moratorium on the FAA over commercial space for eight years. Congress has twice extended the moratorium over the years, but it expires again this October.
The FAA is taking preliminary action to develop a safety framework for commercial human spaceflight ahead of the moratorium expiring, a spokesperson told Bloomberg News. The agency is also updating its recommended practices for human spaceflight occupant safety and working to develop voluntary consensus standards.
Representative Frank Lucas, chair of the House Committee on Science, Space and Technology, said Friday the committee is currently looking into regulations for commercial space travel, but did not provide any specifics.
“It’s very important and it’s a growing slice of the industry,” he said. “Let’s see how we work it out.”
The justification for the lack of oversight thus far is that the space industry is still in a “learning period,” much like commercial aviation in its early years. “There are those that fear that imposing government safety regulations early in the process is going to stifle the industry,” said Weeden.
The president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group representing commercial space companies that in 2015 lobbied to extend the moratorium, did not respond to a request for comment.
Though the FAA cannot impose safety standards, it is responsible for licensing all space launches and reentries. But it primarily ensures that any associated mishap won’t harm the environment or uninvolved bystanders and property.
The mechanics of space tourism differ substantially from those of commercial deep sea exploration. For one, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights aren’t really in danger of being lost during a flight: They don’t actually achieve orbit, and gravity would swiftly bring them back to Earth. SpaceX sends its ships into orbit, but plenty of tracking technology exists to locate space objects if communication breaks down.
Space companies also perform numerous high-profile tests and often stress their commitment to safety. Though, the exact protocols and procedures can be somewhat opaque.
Mishaps have, however, happened. In July of 2021, when Virgin Galactic flew founder Richard Branson into space, the craft deviated from its intended flight path; and in 2014, a pilot died and another was seriously injured during a Virgin Galactic test flight. Just last year, a Blue Origin rocket meant for passengers crashed after its engine failed. No people were on board, and Blue Origin said the flight’s safety measures operated as designed during an emergency.
As space tourism evolves beyond quick trips, some argue it’s time to end the moratorium. SpaceX has already flown 12 commercial astronauts to orbit and the International Space Station. Axiom Space Inc., Vast Space LLC and Blue Origin are also working toward building their own commercial space stations that they want civilians to visit, in some cases, as early as 2025.
Even if the moratorium lifts, regulations would take time to draft and implement.
The industry should be proactive, said George Nield, the former associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the FAA.
“I would love to see government, industry, academia all get together and see if we can put together something that everyone would agree to,” said Nield, who is now the president of Commercial Space Technologies, LLC. NASA has more than 50 years of experience flying people to space that could be used to inform some safety standards, he said.
If not, a high-profile accident could occur, prompting calls for hasty and heavy regulations.
“That would be very, very bad,” said Nield. “Because fast regulations are generally poor regulations.”
Photo: The Blue Origin New Shepard crew in Van Horn, Texas, on July 20, 2021. (Bloomberg)
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