For at least the past ten years, space tourism has been the next big thing coming. With all the private human space flight companies announcing, postponing, and re-announcing the dates of the foreseen commencements of their operations, the public might have grown a little bit tired of waiting. One American news website even wrote earlier this month that with XCor space trips now being advertised by a range of toiletries, space tourism might actually become passé before it even gets started.
To reassure that space tourism really IS up and coming and that it actually gets increasing attention of a wide community of professionals working in insurance, regulation, health care, and business, the International Institute of Space Commerce held a one day workshop in London on February 2, entitled Space Tourism: Risks and Solutions. As one of the major topics discussed was possible insurance frameworks for the emerging industry, the event took place in the Mecca of bespoke insurance – the Lloyd’s building in London. Co-organizing the event were space insurance specialists from the London based insurance company Aon.
To talk about space related risks and dangers, the institute could hardly have picked a more suitable date, as February 2, 2013, marked the tenth anniversary of the tragic disaster of the Space Shuttle Columbia. How a similar accident on a commercial spacecraft would affect the development of the nascent sector was one of the questions raised by the workshop participants.
To sit on two panels covering first risks and then the proposed solutions, the Institute of Space Commerce invited experts representing various fields. That probably all of the participants were true space tourism enthusiasts was clear from the beginning with the chair of the first panel Angie Buckley, the dean of the International Space University, stating in her opening remarks that “who wouldn’t want to go there, if we had the chance?” To which most of the participants nodded in agreement.
But it is not a harmless fairy tale fantasy to fly towards the stars, watch the Earth from above, and enjoy several minutes of floating in microgravity. There are real risks involved: risks for the companies that they won’t make profits, risks for those on the ground, and especially risks for the Space Flight Participants (an official status of the future space tourists). If data about failure rates of government funded space flights are applied to suborbital flights, chances are that if 700 passengers are flown annually, up to 10 of them might not survive the flight in the first years of the operations.
Eccentric multi-millionaires might be willing to accept any risk and waive every claim against the space flight operator in exchange for the chance of being pioneers of the “beyond Earth” adventure. But if the industry wants to thrive and attract a wider customer base, more conservative options would have to be in place. There is no doubt, however, that to insure such an unproven emerging venture would be costly and risky.
In the US, suborbital space tourism is so far covered by The Commercial Space Launch Amendment Act that clearly states that the Space Flight Participants are voluntarily accepting all risks, and are required to sign an informed consent. The US Congress even described the sector as “the preserve of visionaries and daredevils and adventurers who will fly at their own risk and who do not expect and should not expect to be protected by the government.”
As pointed out by Garrett Smith from Cosmica Spacelines sitting on the first panel of the workshop, it is questionable what the real value of these informed consents would be in the American “everyone sues everyone culture.”
What might appear even more surprising is that whereas the US Government agreed to share the risks regarding third party liability with the suborbital space tourism operators, the aspiring space tourists are personally liable for any third party claims related to their space trips. (Does this mean that if a corpse of a space tourists after an in flight explosion falls on somebody’s car, the family of the unfortunate adventurer will be expected to pay for the damage?)
A French medical consultant Bernard Comet mentioned some other interesting facts that make an outsider wonder, how it is possible that both forerunners in the emerging industry – XCOR and Virgin Galactic – have already sold considerable numbers of tickets for their future flights. Dr. Comet believes that not enough knowledge is available to responsibly assess the risks microgravity and the G loads during flight pose to individuals’ health.
According to an article published in the British Medical Journal in December 2012, no clear recommendations regarding the health assessment of aspiring space tourists are so far in place. And as all medical check-ups are only expected to take place within the four days of the prior-to-the-launch training, one might wonder to what extent can the rejected aspirants expect full refunds of their up to $200,000 fare. Not even to mention how it is possible that the severely disabled super star physicist Stephen Hawking is supposedly already scheduled for a fight with Virgin Galactic.
Both space flight aspirants present at the workshop – XCOR’s Per Wimmer and Virgin’s Nigel Henbest – confirmed that they are happy to accept any risk. Even though Henbest appeared a little bit surprised after hearing that it’s not the first pioneering flights that are in the greatest danger of failure. According to the Space Shuttle Challenger and Columbia experience, the disaster usually takes place when everyone is too sure that nothing can go wrong. Maybe Richard Branson and his family are not taking such a risk then, when volunteering for the first Virgin Galactic flight this year.
However, if Henbest postpones his flight a little, the insurance companies might have a suitable product ready for him. The regime applicable should be similar to other adventure tourism activities such as climbing Mount Everest or hang-gliding.