The Future of Space Tourism (CRS R46500)

Several private companies are developing plans to take paying customers to space on a regular basis. Federal oversight of space tourism has been deliberately light, consistent with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-492), in which Congress mandated a “learning period” for companies to develop business models, establish safety standards, and design spaceflight vehicles prior to establishment of federal regulations.

In that law, Congress directed the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to develop indicators showing when the space tourism industry has matured to the point that it can accommodate a stricter safety regulatory regime. In a 2019 report to Congress, FAA found that the sector was not yet ready for stricter regulation. It is to provide another assessment of the industry in 2022. The “learning period” during which the agency must forbear from regulation is currently set to expire in 2023.

At present, the U.S. government has no procedures for certifying the safety of launch vehicles for tourist passengers. Launch providers must receive a license for their rockets from FAA, but this licensing process addresses propulsion and trajectory aspects of spaceflight missions and public safety on the ground rather than passenger safety. For flights with passengers aboard, FAA requires crew and pilots of commercial spaceflight vehicles to meet certain training and medical standards, but it has no standards applicable to passengers.

Before boarding a rocket to space, or even just to the edge of space, passengers are required by FAA to sign a waiver acknowledging known risks of spaceflight. However, aerospace medical experts recognize many health risks associated with spaceflight are still not well understood, and very little research has been done on medical consequences of such flights on the health of untrained participants. Known medical risks vary based on many factors, including spaceflight profile, vehicle configuration, destination, and duration, as well as preexisting medical conditions in passengers. Participants enduring microgravity, high speeds, and intense gravitational forces could experience vision loss, motion sickness, balance issues, loss of consciousness, and cardiovascular complications. FAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) recommended medical screening standards for tourist spaceflight participants in 2012, but these guidelines are not binding on companies that provide launch or accommodation for space travelers.

In the event of an accident involving a commercial spaceflight vehicle and passengers, FAA’s requirement for passengers to sign waivers absolves the government and launch operator of any liability for loss of life. However, families of spaceflight participants are not required to sign a waiver and could sue the launch operator after such an accident. To date, no such action has been tested in court. Responsibility for official accident investigations involving commercial space vehicles is shared between FAA and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB).

In 2018, the Department of Commerce proposed designating its Office of Commercial Space as an independent bureau with responsibility for commercial space traffic management, in addition to other functions. Since then, several bills have been introduced to create such a bureau and give it principal responsibility for regulating commercial spaceflight. None of those bills has been enacted.

As the congressionally mandated learning period approaches its expiration date, Congress may consider whether the development of the industry has progressed enough to impose a stricter governance regime for space tourism activities. Legislators could hold hearings, direct studies, or examine expert and industry views on whether the law restricting FAA’s authority to regulate the safety of commercial spacecraft for tourist use should be extended again or allowed to expire entirely or in phases. Congress also has supported the development of voluntary safety standards by industry, interagency working groups, and the aerospace medical community, and may want to consider whether the federal government should use such standards to create a regulatory framework.

“The Future of Space Tourism,” CRS Report R46500, August 28, 2020 (19-page PDFPDF)

Space Tourism – from

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