OpEd: The Future of Citizen Astronauts?

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  Space News Business

OpEd: The Future of Citizen Astronauts?

By JOSEPH N. PELTON

posted: 03 May 2007
07:34 pm ET


The publicity surrounding Charles Simonyi’s two-week “First Nerd in Space Mission” to the international space station has been tremendous. Martha Stewart’s preparing exotic lunch bags packed with duck pate has given the mission a romantic twist as well.

The various ways that private citizens can now go into space continue to expand apace. Options range from a ride on a zero-gravity aircraft for $3,500, to a simulated ride for more than $8,000 , to a very high-end trip to the space station for around $25 million. Rock stars, to politicians to billionaires are signed up for sub orbital flights beginning in just a few year’s time.

But is space tourism really a serious business, and what does the future really hold? There have been serious market studies by the European Space Agency, the Futron Corp. and others that suggest this could become a real multi billion business. Already more than a billion dollars have been invested in space plane development, new spaceports, and training and testing facilities.

The recently released study by our institute at George Washington University titled “Space Planes and Space Tourism,” available on line at www.spacesafety.org, provides information about some 40 different initiatives in the United States and around the world. These are initiatives to develop space planes, lighter-than-air craft with ion engine systems, “dark sky” stations, tether-based systems, space elevators and spaceports. Bigelow Aerospace of Las Vegas and Inter Orbital Systems of Mojave, Calif., are both even seriously talking about privately funded facilities in orbit — and by around 2010 .

There are now efforts of various governmental and commercial bodies to develop serious projects related to space tourism in Argentina, Australia, Canada, China, France, Germany, Russia, Singapore, Switzerland, Ukraine, the United Arab Emirates and the United Kingdom as well as in the United States. Amid all of the enthusiasm, there are still some tough questions to be asked and answered.

First of all, this type of enterprise is a high-risk undertaking in several senses of the word. Our study indicates at least 25 ventures already have folded or have been absorbed by others. The churn rate of corporations involved in space tourism likely will remain high.

Federal Aviation Administration Associate Administrator Patricia Grace Smith and her team at the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation have strived hard to develop safety regulations that will protect the U.S. government and property adjacent to spaceports; provide reasonable safety regulations for crew and passengers; and provide a regulatory framework that can allow this industry to survive and even thrive.

There are, however, some serious problems to be addressed and thoughtful questions to be answered. Some of the more important ones — including some potential show stoppers from the George Washington University report — include the following:

�   Environmental Concerns and Issues: The flights of the supersonic Concorde into the high stratosphere were a concern in terms of its potential damage to the ozone layer. Many breathed easier when the Concorde was grounded. The prospect of potentially thousands of flights of space planes into near space, as well as the near-term development of supersonic commercial executive jets as a parallel industry, thus represents an environmental concern. Damage to the ozone layer may be a more urgent concern than global warming: genetic damage could kill off the human race much faster than rising temperatures.

The FAA currently has overall regulatory responsibility for the space tourism industry. Grace Smith explained at a recent public forum that they do have environmental engineers examining this issue. Yet before full-scale service begins it would seem that the Environmental Protection Agency should examine in some depth the potential environmental impact by a large number of flights into the stratosphere and near space by space planes and supersonic commercial executive jets . This would be an examination, both in terms of the ozone layer and other green house pollutants.

�   Risk management for a space tourism industry: The first words in the waiver statements that citizen astronauts would be asked to sign indicate that such flights are of high risk and the space plane craft are “years away” from being so certified by the FAA. It is not clear whether there is a reliable insurance or reinsurance market that will be able to sustain the space tourism industry on an on going basis and whether the various start up companies can provide self coverage on a long-term basis.

�   Weaponizationofspace: The November 2006 National Directive on Space from the White House indicated support for private initiatives in space and space commercialization. The same directive also indicated that the United States would take all necessary actions to protect space assets and otherwise implied that further weaponization of space could occur.

A new and clarified national directive that addresses more clearly the position of the U.S. government with regard to its regulatory and strategic position on issues such as space tourism, private space stations and the deployment of military systems in space, would appear highly desirable. Even more desirable might be an international convention or treaty that clarified such issues on a global basis among all space faring nations.

�   Orbitaldebris: The increase in orbital debris, particularly in low Earth orbit, continues to expand despite the due diligence requirements developed by the International Telecommunication Union and the International Commission on Debris. The recent test firing of an anti-satellite missile by the Chinese government has increased the risk factors for the international space station, space shuttle launches, space tourism and certainly commercial space hotels. A new effort to address this growing menace to space flight, space exploration and space applications is clearly needed — not just for space tourism, but for all space-related systems and missions.

�   Clarification of U.S. governmental roles in space: The law under which the FAA now regulates space tourism indicates essentially two things. One is that that the FAA is to regulate the industry’s safety as well as that of the populace. The other is that the FAA is to promote the growth and development of this new industry. The FAA has worked closely and effectively with the Private Spaceflight Federation to develop what appear to be reasonable safety regulations and the rest of the world seems to be following similar approaches in response to the U.S. lead.

Putting U.S. agencies in the role of cheerleader and referee , however, is always a flawed concept. NASA’s serving as its own safety monitor for the space shuttle and the international space station clearly was exposed by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board and the earlier Challenger investigations. The nuclear industry has its clear regulatory controls by a separate government agency and the control of safety for civil aviation by the FAA has been until now equally clear cut.


A review of all these issues, including the possibility that aerospace research might be transferred from NASA to another governmental agency, are issues that Congress needs to consider as the industry moves forward.

What Next?

The space tourism industry excites our imagination and is a key step in the evolution of human kind. One may hope that commercial space ventures can move the human race forward to new vistas where the sky is no longer the limit. Space Adventures even now is contemplating the prospect of citizen astronauts going to the Moon.

The best way for space tourism to succeed, however, is for show stoppers to be addressed and resolved now — rather than later when retrofits and retooling of systems can be much more expensive and difficult. Peter Diamandis, co-founder of the International Space University and founder of the X Prize, has moved the world of space tourism forward through dynamic leadership. We have gone from thinking of citizen astronauts as science fiction to tomorrow’s fact. The time for serious consideration of the several issues raised in the George Washington University report on space planes and space tourism is now.

The “Reach-to-Space Conference” will be held Nov. 12-13 in Washington, with sponsorship by the U.S. government, industry and academia . It will address the future of space commercialization and other issues related to space applications. Hopefully, by then, some of the answers will have become much clearer .

Joseph N. Pelton is director of the Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute at George Washington University, and a former dean of the International Space University.