We are witnessing an explosion in private space ventures.  It has been many decades since ‘space’ was as popular and newsworthy as it is right now.

Companies and spaceports are springing up at an ever-increasing rate.  It’s all very exciting and, for those of us who are enthusiasts, this re-emergence of all things ‘Space’ is very welcome.

Perhaps it was the remarkable flight of the privately built Spaceship One, which flew to the very edge of space (and did it without the assistance of any government of multi-national) that relit the public imagination.  This was a small private adventure, conducted with great risk and it very nearly ended in disaster.  That’s fine.  There were no passengers, no ‘innocents’ were put at risk and it was never meant to be anything other than an experimental flight.  Then Felix Baumgartner jumped from a balloon at 39,045 m, and survived. Brilliant!  In both of these adventures things were learned that could well be useful to other less risky ventures.  The fact that it is possible to parachute from the edge of space and survive, and that techniques for doing this were developed, may turn out to be very useful one day.

This rush into space is reminiscent of the opening up of the American West.  At first, a few adventurers dared to explore and cross the vast deserts and mountain ranges. They established trails and passes that were followed by young men in search of fortune and, later, by the pioneer families in their ‘prairie schooners’ who were striving for a better life.  There were gold-rushes, mining booms, wild lawless towns ruled by the gun, and many, many untimely deaths.  Then came the railways, government, law and order and the ‘Wild West’ was no more. The West ceased to be a frontier.  Oh – and the people who already occupied the vast ’empty’ spaces, and the wild-life they depended upon were just about wiped out in the process.  Those empty spaces weren’t empty after all.

This new frontier of the orbital space around the planet, is in that first phase of adventure and fortune-hunting.  Space isn’t empty either.  It’s actually quite full.  Full with satellites and assorted space-junk.  While there are some treaties covering satellites and debris, there are no laws.  There is no regulator.  It’s the wild west in space.  Who is going to license and oversee the new commercial ventures?  Those involved in this commerce think regulation is a bad thing and that it will preclude innovation.  That’s what the early railroads thought.  But then the bodies started piling up.  When is an aircraft a spaceship?  What’s the difference?  Regulators such as the FAA have no experience in spacecraft.  Once you’re above the atmosphere there are no rules, certainly no laws.  If the history of transportation teaches us anything, it teaches us that there will be a dangerous mess until a regulatory regime is established.

Like the American West, space is not empty.  The orbital environment is pretty crowded.  There’s lots of stuff just above the atmosphere, satellites, space stations (with people on board), and an awful lot of debris.  Every rocket that goes up leaves stuff behind, mostly very small bits – but quite a few big ones as well.  They’re all hurtling along at around 40,000 kph.  At that speed, something as insignificant as a flake of paint can leave a hole in a spacecraft.  The bigger bits will tear spacecraft apart.  The more rockets that go up, the bigger the problem becomes.  Even the frozen exhaust from rocket motors adds to the mess.  There is, at present, nothing to prevent the rush into space rendering low Earth orbit unusable for satellites or manned craft.  To complicate matters, space is international.  Regulations in America have no effect in China, and rockets can come from just about anywhere.

Now we have the prospect of a paying passenger public going into space.  Instead of regulation, the concept for their protection that is now being rolled out is the concept of Informed Consent.  I’m fine with that.  So long as the passengers know the risks, and as long as they are adults who are competent to take those risks, then let them get on with it.  SO LONG AS THEY KNOW THE RISKS.

Make no mistake, if a few very wealthy people get killed, the waivers they signed won’t mean a thing if they didn’t know the risks.  It may make no difference whether they knew the risks or not.  There will be a massive outcry, huge negative publicity and a demand for regulation and accountability.  That would be the end of passenger space travel for decades and the damage to the industry would be immense.  A wise industry would regulate itself, set published standards, and be open about the risks involved.  It would do this before the disaster happens.

When the West was wild, it was a different era.  A Wild West in space won’t be acceptable in the day of 24 hour news and the litigious society.

Right now, the risks are not being properly declared.  The impression is being given that riding rockets can be as safe as a ride in a light aircraft.  That simply isn’t true.  Rockets are dangerous and even the most careful engineering can only make them ‘as safe as possible’.  They can’t make them ‘safe’.

Standards must be established.  Openness and transparency will be the commercial spaceflight industry’s best defense against the consequences of what will inevitably go wrong, sooner or later.

Vehicles and propulsion systems must be peer-reviewed in public.  The present secrecy and slanted public relations do the industry no favors.

The alternative to an open, honest self-regulatory regime is one that this industry will not like or want.  The industry can, of course, carry on regardless with the present stance of “Trust us, it can’t happen here.”  We’ve heard that before and it has never ended well.

– By Carolynne Campbell-Knight. This article is not to be reproduced except by permission of the author. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the positions of Space Safety Magazine, the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety, or the International Space Safety Foundation.