Thursday, February 24, 2011

T-Minus the Future: Is America's Space Policy Adrift?

Space Shuttle Discovery is set to launch one hour from this post.  The mission will be Discovery's last and, in fact, only a couple of space shuttle missions remain before the nation that achieved the goal of "landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth" will be reliant on foreign nations for human space flight.

The final Space Shuttle missions highlight an important question: What is the future of America's space program?

The answer may be private enterprise.

In 2001, Dennis Tito became the first public space traveler or “space tourist,” purchasing a ticket for space travel aboard the Russian Soyuz spacecraft bound for the International Space Station.  Earlier, in 1998, Virginia-based Space Adventures, Ltd. introduced brokerage services for space flights for private citizens, envisioning a $10 billion industry.  Today, the company advertises suborbital spaceflight for $102,000 (inclusive of $4,000 cancellation insurance) and a private expedition to the moon for $100 million.  M

Meanwhile, Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have signed up hundreds of people for $200,000 suborbital flights, and the European Aeronautic and Defense Company has studied the feasibility of a space hotel.  Industry forecasters predict that space tourism, like early airline travel, initially will be reserved for wealthier individuals, but that nearly 13,000 passengers may participate in orbital and suborbital space tourism by 2021, creating approximately $700 million in revenue.

Several states have already enacted space tourism laws.  For example, in 2007, Virginia became the first state to enact legislation conditionally immunizing commercial human space flight operators.  And, effective October 1, 2008, the “Florida Informed Consent for Spaceflight Act,” regulates spaceflight operators.  To avoid liability, private space operators (i.e., “spaceflight entities”) must provide a minimum statutory warning statement to outer space passengers:

WARNING: Under Florida law, there is no liability for an injury to or death of a participant in a spaceflight activity provided by a spaceflight entity if such injury or death results from the inherent risks of the spaceflight activity.  Injuries caused by the inherent risks of spaceflight activities may include, among others, injury to land, equipment, persons, and animals, as well as the potential for you to act in a negligent manner that may contribute to your injury or death.  You are assuming the risk of participating in this spaceflight activity.

By signing a consent form acknowledging this warning, space tourists in Florida voluntarily release spaceflight carriers from liability for injury or death arising from the “inherent risks of spaceflight activities.”  Of course a spaceflight entity cannot escape liability if it commits an act or omission that constitutes gross negligence or willful or wanton disregard for the safety of the space tourist that proximately causes injury, damage, or death.

The convergence of public, private, and commercial space initiatives, supported by a corresponding (albeit nascent) set of space tourism laws, evidences an inflexion point in human space activity and potentially greater accessibility to outer space for the global community.  Indeed, to date, the Federal Aviation Administration has licensed five commercial “spaceports,” including Cape Canaveral.  Florida has an outstanding opportunity to lead a new era in aerospace commerce and the expectation of a commercial space tourism industry that is comparable to that of commercial aviation is not unreasonable.

Even (if not especially) in today's economic climate, more can and should be done to give priority to space travel and exploration, lest the prestige and importance of American technology and know-how sunset and cede to other emerging "space nations."

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