Thrill-seekers looking to blast into space would need to be informed in writing of serious risks — including death — and promise not to sue the government under the first-ever rules for commercial space travel.
The rules issued Friday by the Federal Aviation Administration mandate training and medical fitness evaluations for crew members, preflight testing and other steps companies must take before getting licenses to carry paying passengers into the beyond.
The rules apply to American companies launching from anywhere in the world, and to foreign companies launching from U.S. soil.
Virgin Galactic, run by British entrepreneur Richard Branson, is aiming to offer out-of-this-world vacations in the 2008-2009 time frame for travelers willing to pay $200,000 apiece. Space Adventures Ltd. of Vienna, Va., is making similar plans, as are other outfits.
The FAA regulations were required under legislation Congress passed two years ago, in the wake of the successful 2004 flights of a privately financed manned rocket over California’s Mojave Desert.
Fly at your own risk
For now, the flights aren’t required to be safe for passengers. Lawmakers were concerned that safety requirements would hamper innovation in the infant industry, and settled on informed consent for the early years of paid space travel. The FAA was given the authority to begin regulating for passenger safety in eight years, or if an accident causing serious injury or death happened before then.
“Private human spaceflight will be an unparalleled adventure,” said FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey. “In an environment where some level of risk will always be present, this action underscores the FAA’s firm commitment to public safety.”
The entrepreneurs competing to fly people into space have been pushing for the rules to establish a legal framework for their ventures. There are already rules for private-sector space endeavors such as satellite launches, but until now, no legal jurisdiction for regulating commercial human spaceflight.
“One of the key priorities here is regulatory certainty. Investors and engineers and spaceport operators all want to know ahead of time what the rules are that we’re going to be dealing with here,” said Rich Pournelle, director of business development at XCOR Aerospace, a launch vehicle developer in California.
Under the new rules, which take effect Feb. 13, companies will be required to be insured. Passengers must be informed in writing about the risks of the vehicle type they’re using, and that space travel in general carries the risk of death or serious injury. No limitations are imposed on who can be a space tourist, but basic training for passengers must be provided.
Existing rules for commercial space travel aim to the ensure safety for people on the ground, including by restricting flights over heavily populated areas.