The Legal Implications Of Space Tourism
The recent crash of the Virgin Galactic’s rocket-powered spaceship has drawn attention once again to the dangers of space travel.
The reality of buying a ticket to space seems to be just around the corner. However, Virgin Galactic’s recent tragedy has put a spotlight on the legal implications of such a seemingly dangerous new industry.
On October 31, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed over the desert of Mojave, California, during a test flight, killing one of the two pilots aboard.
The spacecraft’s unique “feathering” system, a method of positioning the rudders to maximize drag during descent, deployed too early during the flight. The spacecraft disintegrated seconds later, leaving the two pilots helpless during a 10-mile drop to Earth.
What Laws Protect Commercial Space Passengers?
Virgin Galactic’s fatal crash spooked many potential space travelers and raises several key questions about the legal ramifications of space travel, including: Are there even laws in space?
According to James E. Dunstan of Mobius Legal Group, PLLC, the 2004 Commercial Space Flight Amendments to U.S. domestic law require that passengers of commercial space flights give written consent for their participation only after being fully briefed on the dangers of space flight. For accidents that occur while in space, international law dictates that the negligence test be applied to the party responsible for the accident to determine if they breached their duty to the injured party.
Who Polices Space?
According to the international 1967 Outer Space Treaty, each country is responsible for ensuring that their space travelers comply with the provisions of the treaty. In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for providing licenses for all space flights.
In order to obtain a license for space flight, applicants must prove to the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation that the proposed flights are reasonably safe to the general public and that the participants in the flights have been adequately informed of the dangers of the endeavor. In addition, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulate the communication and positioning of commercial space flights.
Dunstan told Benzinga that some areas of international law regarding the relatively new industry of commercial space travel still seem to be lacking clarity.
“In the event that an accident occurs involving the citizens of multiple countries," Dunstan said "then States [countries] are to confer and diplomatically address the problem. Obviously, there isn’t much ‘teeth’ in that.”
How Has Space Travel Changed The Law?
Space exploration and travel have put the same kinds of pressures on the international body of law that the rise of sea travel did in the 15th and 16th centuries and the rise of air travel did in the 20th century. The law is constantly changing and adapting to the modern world, and inevitable legal disputes revolving around commercial space travel will continue to shape the law in the future.
Dunstan points out that space debris are one example of an issue that was solved in the past in the realm of sea travel, but has not yet been addressed in terms of space.
“I have argued… that one way to alleviate the problem of space debris would be for the U.S. first (hopefully followed by other countries) to declare that any object in space that is no longer functioning be deemed abandoned and subject to the [maritime] laws of Salvage and/or Finds,” he said.
What Does The Virgin Galactic Crash Mean For Future Space Travel?
Although several of Virgin Galactic’s 800 customers slated to take trips to space have asked for refunds after the recent crash, most of the remaining customers are still supportive. The company is already working on building a replacement for the destroyed SpaceCraftTwo and hopes to be performing test flights by 2015.
Virgin Galactic’s main competition when it comes to space tourism is SpaceX. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk, well known for his pioneering work with Tesla Motors Inc (NASDAQ: TSLA) and eBay Inc’s (NASDAQ: EBAY) Paypal payment system, is shooting to make space tourism a reality no sooner than 2016.
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