Space Tourism: Fact or Fiction?

Space Tourism: Fact or Fiction?
By Aaron Thiel

Space tourist Gregory Olsen and the twelfth ISS crew lifted off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome launch pad inside their Soyuz TMA-7 at about 11:55 p.m. EDT on October 1. Olsen, who paid $20 million to be a "spaceflight participant" as he calls it, joins an elite group of space tourists: Dennis Tito was the first paying passenger ($20 million) in April 2001 and Mark Shuttleworth was the second ($20 million) in April 2002.

Space tourism has indeed arrived and is not going anywhere but up. In an article published by Aviation Week in 2000, Norman Augustine, ex-CEO of Lockhead Martin, predicted that space tourism would become the main space activity. In 1997 the US "National Leisure Travel Monitor" survey included questions on space tourism for the first time. Of 1,500 Americans surveyed, 42% said they'd be interested in flying in a space cruise vessel, and would be willing to spend on average $10,800 for the trip.

For the industry to succeed, however, private enterprise will need to take the reigns from Russia and turn space tourism into a corporate affair rather than a government program. Unfortunately, the laws governing space travel and the use of outer space were legislated through international treaties in the 60ís and 70ís and were focused primarily on government operations. Of course, when these treaties were adopted, government space programs were the only game in town. Not to mention that the Cold War was in full swing. The "space race" attitude favored complete government control over space operations which dampened any need to address the rights of private enterprise. This lack of vision has and will continue to complicate the future of commercial space tourism unless changes are made.

Current laws dictate that national states are responsible for any outer space activities carried out by its government agencies or private enterprises. For example, if a private Japanese company launches a rocket that explodes over Alaska and causes loss of life, the Japanese government would be liable in addition to the company. Given this setup, a nation can either prohibit all commercial space related activities to mitigate risk, or in the alternative it can enact laws which set certain safety and quality standards to help reduce its liability exposure.

On December 23, 2004, President Bush signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. This act advances the development of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and designates both the Transportation Department and the FAA as the responsible agencies for regulating private human spaceflight.

But if each country does its part to legislatively promote the industry, the resulting patch quilt of national regulations will give rise to totally different levels of safety and quality standards. Weíve seen this in the maritime sector where cheap-flag-states allow ships and crews to fall well below sensible safety requirements. Not the safest regime for those traveling into space.

The most appropriate solution would be to create an international treaty that creates an equal standardization while promoting greater transparency and reliability for private enterprises in space tourism or any other commercial activity in outer space. The principles of such a treaty could then be adopted into national law thus making each country responsible for monitoring private enterprises under its control and enforcing the uniform standards.

But so far, the need for standardization hasnít thwarted those seeking their first commercial flight into outer space. In fact, thereís already a waiting list. Sir Richard Branson, billionaire founder of Virgin Atlantic airline, has formed Virgin Galactic LLC which will begin launching commercial passengers into space sometime in 2008 from U.S. soil. The going rate for a seat onboard a Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceship is $200,000. You can secure your seat today with a $20,000 deposit.

Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, has been quoted by SPACE.com stating that, "We have a significant level of deposits now . . . nearly $10 million worth . . . Iím sure we would have sold out at least the first couple of years by the time we start flying."

Copyright 2005 by Aaron S. Thiel

Attorney Aaron S. Thiel is an avid Space Law enthusiast and published author. Mr. Thiel has written his latest novel, The Payload, to captivate readers with issues relevant to today's Mars rover missions and not-so fictional scenarios that will thrill and excite the imagination. To learn more about the author and his writings, please visit his website http://www.aaronsthiel.com or his blog at http://dutchbennettnovelseries.blogspot.com

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