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AA: Space Tourists Fly at Own Risk

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Sat Mar 5, 2005 1:39 am
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By Irene Mona Klotz, Travel Channel News: Aspiring space tourists will need little more than a doctor’s approval, written consent and a strong stomach to fly aboard a privately operated suborbital spacecraft, at least as far as the U.S. government is concerned.

“Because the commercial human space flight industry is in its early stages, the (regulation) is based on principles of informed consent and voluntary assumption of risk by space flight participants,” the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation wrote in its first guideline for private suborbital space flight, which was released for public review recently.

The agency was working on the guideline long before the privately developed SpaceShipOne successfully completed a trio of suborbital flights last year, claiming a $10-million prize in the process.

The purpose of the Ansari X Prize was to stimulate industry to develop private passenger-carrying vehicles.

Apparently, the competition, which signed up more than two dozen teams and generated global publicity, worked.

SpaceShipOne owners are developing a fleet of vehicles for the Virgin Group’s new space transit service, Virgin Galactic, while a handful of other companies are creating alternative suborbital — and in some cases, orbital — passenger-carrying ships.

The FAA’s prime concern is public safety, so its oversight of vehicle operation and crew eclipses what the agency has to say about fare-paying passengers flying aboard privately operated spacecraft.

The government, however, wants to make sure passengers know they are risking their lives by flying aboard these vehicles. The guideline requires space travel operators to fully inform passengers of not only their vehicle’s risks, but also the safety records of all private and government suborbital and orbital transit systems.

“Regardless of whether humans traveled to space on board a vehicle destined for a suborbital or orbital mission, those persons traveled on vehicles based on technology as new then, as what may be developed now. It was therefore as risky,” the FAA wrote.

Space tourists would be required to sign a document stating they understand they are flying aboard an uncertified craft and that they have been provided in writing information about the known hazards and risks associated with their trip, including the launch, which is generally considered the most dangerous part of space flight.

“This description should include the likelihood and consequences of any reasonably foreseeable hazardous event and safety-critical system failures that could result in a serious injury or death to the space flight participant,” the guideline stated.

Once aboard, passengers can anticipate seeing a prominently placed sign stating that the vehicle does not meet aircraft-certification standards. The FAA, however, will not step in to say who is fit to fly and who is not.

That decision rests with the individual vehicle operators. All the FAA stipulates is that space fliers submit their medical histories to a doctor trained in aerospace medicine for review.

Security concerns did prompt the FAA to extend to spaceflight some of the same prohibitions of commercial airline travel. To protect the flight crew, which is charged with safe operation of the spacecraft, the FAA wants to bar space tourists from carrying aboard knives, explosives, weapons and firearms.

Responding to the FAA’s proposed guidelines will be the first order of business for a new trade organization being formed to represent the nascent commercial human space flight industry, said Gregg Maryniak, spokesman for the Personal Spaceflight Federation.

“Where we can, we will speak with one voice,” Maryniak said.

The federation’s charter members include John Carmack of Armadillo Aerospace, SpaceShipOne builder Burt Rutan of Scaled Composites, Elon Musk of SpaceX, Alex Tai of Virgin Galactic, Jeff Greason of XCOR Aerospace, Peter Diamandis of the X Prize Foundation, Gary Hudson of t/Space and HMX, George French of Pioneer Rocketplane, Stuart Witt of the Mojave Spaceport of California, Eric Anderson of Space Adventures, and Michael Kelly, chairman of the Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

The FAA plans to issue draft regulations before the end of the year and have final rules in place no later than June 2006. Passenger space flight service is expected to debut by 2008.

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