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Congress revisits space tourism debate

/ Source: The Associated Press

Space entrepreneurs say they believe they are on the brink of developing a vibrant tourism industry, but worry that government regulation may stifle it before it can take off.

To prevent that, they have formed a group, the Industry Consensus Standards Organization, to set standards for space fliers.

“If government regulates safety aspects of space fliers themselves, it would be tantamount to killing the industry,” a group member, Michael Kelly, said at a hearing Wednesday of the House Infrastructure and Transportation’s subcommittee on aviation.

While acknowledging the entrepreneurial spaceflight will be deadly, Kelly said the industry needs the chance to learn from its mistakes.

He predicted the safety standards set by space entrepreneurs for rocket ships will work as well as the Underwriters Laboratories’ stamp of approval on electrical devices.

“We believe the same stamp of approval will provide the same level of safety,” said Kelly, who also is chairman of the Reusable Launch Vehicles Working Group of the Transportation Department’s space advisory committee.

A law signed by President Bush in December requires that the government license launches of privately built spacecraft. It also says the Federal Aviation Administration may not issue safety regulations for passengers and crew for eight years unless specific design features or operating practices result in a serious or fatal injury.

Rep. James Oberstar, D-Minn., objects to that approach, which he said amounts to a “tombstone mentality.” Oberstar has introduced a bill requiring that the FAA include in its licenses minimum safety and health standards for spacecraft passengers and crew.

“We need at least a framework of safety around commercial space travel,” Oberstar said during the hearing.

New frontiers
Bush has called for NASA to return to the moon and eventually to send a spacecraft to Mars. Entrepreneurs, meantime, are working to develop spacecraft that can take regular citizens into space.

A watershed event was Burt Rutan’s winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize in October, which he accomplished by sending his SpaceShipOne rocket plane to the edge of space twice in five days.

“The genie is out of the bottle, the fuse has been lit,” Peter Diamandis, X Prize founder, said in a telephone interview. “We are really at the birth of the personal space flight revolution.”

Elon Musk, chairman of SpaceX, said in a telephone interview that government needs to respect the human spirit.

“If somebody understands the risks and puts their life on the line because they think it’s worth it, we should applaud that,” said Musk.

The company in El Segundo, Calif., plans to send a $30 million Navy satellite into space using a small launch vehicle within the next few months.

Evolving regulations
FAA chief Marion Blakey agreed that government oversight of commercial space enterprises — “astropreneurs,” she calls them — must evolve along with the industry.

“It was more than 20 years after the Wright brothers’ first flight before government regulations concerning aviation were put into place,” Blakey told the subcommittee, noting that modern airlines began with barnstorming aviators.

Last year, the FAA licensed the Mojave Airport in California as a launch site as a prelude to the historic SpaceShipOne flight. Blakey said the agency also is talking with Oklahoma, Texas and New Mexico about their license applications for launch sites.

Starting in 2007, New Mexico’s White Sands Missile Range will be the site of the X Prize’s successor, the annual X Prize Cup, which will be awarded to the winners of five categories of rocket races.

A golden age?
Diamandis predicts a golden age of space tourism, where hundreds and possibly thousands of paying passengers will fly to the edge of space every year.

Four months after Rutan’s rocket darted into space, British entrepreneur Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic company boasts that thousands of reservations already have been made for a ride on a spaceship modeled after SpaceShipOne — at $200,000 a pop.

Diamandis said the cost of a personal spaceflight will fall because today’s space entrepreneurs run such lean operations. It took 20 people to support Rutan’s flight, he said, compared with the 100,000 needed for the space shuttle.

What’s needed for the industry to flourish, he said, is balance.

“We need reasonable guidelines with the understanding that this is risky business,” he said.