about SFPs particularly, Langston also explained, “They themselves
are technically experiments, and many actually do experiments.”
Mark Shuttleworth, for example, was one of Space Adventure’s
early clients. Not only was he the first African in space, but he
conducted the first-ever experiment to assess the impact of zero
gravity on the development of stem cells and embryos; attempted
to crystallize HIV proteins in weightlessness to gain insight into
its structure; and ran an experiment to assess the effect of microgravity on the cardiovascular system and muscles.[ 19]
In his paper for New Space, Chatzipanagiotis pointed to similar
societal benefits to space travel and urged that they be communicated to SFPs as clearly as the aforementioned risk. “Private human
spaceflights should not be regarded as a luxurious extreme sport,”
he wrote, “but a significant step in revolutionizing space travel.
Such flights are expected to encourage technological development,
reduce significantly the cost of flying into space, and make outer
space gradually more accessible to the wide public.” Additionally,
he noted that even private spaceflight could have the same national
impact it had during the Cold War’s space race. “U.S. operators
could also underline the potential contribution of the industry
to U.S. national security, since the United States is a state very
sensitive to such issues,” he added.
Indeed, Mike Mongo—an “astronaut teacher” who advocates
regularly for sending the first kid to space (something not possible
even through commercial spaceflight at the moment due to age
restraints on informed consent)—argues there is more risk in not
pursuing spaceflight than in opening it up. If we legally restrain
ourselves for the sake of safety, he said, other nations will continue
to take risks and move forward. Mongo believes strongly in the
optic value of being the first country to send a child to space and
in the snowball effect it would have with regard to continuing to
grow the next generation’s interest in STEM subjects—science,
technology, engineering, and mathematics—which in turn will
grow our country’s technological dominance and wealth.
“Of the top nations in the world, someone is going to send a kid
to space,” he told me, “[whether] it’s going to be a private program
or a government program. And it’s going to happen relatively soon
because of the rise of the commercial space industry,” which he
said is driving technology forward in general. “When did we start
sending kids in airplanes?” he asked. “Approximately three weeks after
the Wright brothers publicly debuted a flying machine—and three
weeks after someone died! We’ve been going to space for 50 years!”
Despite Mongo’s enthusiasm and the overall promise of the
burgeoning commercial space industry, there are countless
remaining question marks around liability and risk assessment—especially when it comes to sending non-astronauts up
on a non-government spacecraft. And airplanes, for instance, are
only as safe as they are today because of trial and error. Even once
companies like Virgin Galactic start sending everyday citizens
to the Kármán line and beyond, many things will likely have to
go wrong before insurance companies, launch operators, and
other involved parties can get risk right. Because in many ways
the biggest challenge to a seamless, safe trip to outer space is also
the biggest reason for going in the first place: It’s a new frontier.
We don’t know what we don’t know.
To that end, it’s also crucial to remember that risk, at the end of
the day, is a cultural construct. “If you’re looking at it from a cultural
perspective—and I think you have to—then Americans and Russians
are very autonomous in that regard,” Langston said. “You have a right
to do what you want, as long as you’re not harming someone else.”
Whether commercial space travel is a few years or a few decades off,
everyday citizens—should they wish to sign on a dotted line and get
blasted off this planet with the very real possibility of not making it
back—are going to take their chances. Private insurers and public
regulators need to prepare themselves for this inevitability, but in
the end, it’s the spaceflight participants taking the ultimate risk.
ALYSSA OURSLER is a freelance writer.
[ 1] “SpaceShipOne”; Smithsonian National
Air and Space Museum website.
Accessed April 10, 2017.
[ 2] “Space Race Time Line”; NOVA; PBS
website. Accessed April 10, 2017.
[ 3] “Branson Plans Commercial Space
Flights”; NBC News; Sept. 27, 2004.
[ 4] “Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShip Two
Crashes in New Setback for
Commercial Spaceflight”; The New York
Times; Oct. 31, 2014.
[ 5] “Update From Mojave: Successful First
Glide Flight Test For VSS Unity”; Virgin
Galactic newsroom; Dec. 3, 2016.
[ 6] “FAA-AST Awards Virgin Galactic
Operator License For SpaceShip Two”;
Virgin Galactic newsroom; Aug. 1, 2016.
[ 7] “End of an era for shuttle, and NASA”;
CBS News; May 29, 2011.
[ 8] “International Space Station: Russia to
take tourists to satellite when US stops
supporting it”; The Independent; March
[ 9] “NASA Chooses American Companies to
Transport U.S. Astronauts to
International Space Station”; NASA
newsroom; Sept. 16, 2014.
[ 10] “NASA Sends Trailblazing Science,
Cargo to International Space Station
Aboard SpaceX Resupply Mission”;
NASA newsroom; July 18, 2016.
[ 11] “NASA, SpaceX Sign Property
Agreement for Historic Launch Pad”;
NASA newsroom; April 22, 2014.
[ 12] “SpaceX Pulls Off First Reused Rocket
Mission in Triumph for Musk”;
Bloomberg Technology; March 30, 2017.
[ 13] “Boeing delays CS T-100 test flights by
six months”; Spacenews; Oct. 12, 2016.
[ 14] NASA Commercial Crew Program:
Schedule Pressure Increases as
Contractors Delay Key Events; U. S.
Government Accountability Office; Feb.
[ 15] “GAO Reports Significant Delays in
Commercial Crew Launch Dates
(Update)”; NASA Watch; Feb. 17, 2017.
[ 16] “Grounded Space Tourist Sues for $21
Million Refund”; Space.com; Oct. 1,
[ 17] “Informed Consent: Using Behavioral
Science to Make It Easier to Accept ...
and Easier to Nullify in Court?” New
[ 18] Unpublished book manuscript, Chapter
5: “Ethical Issues & Considerations”;
Sara M. Langston.
[ 19] “Clients: Mark Shuttleworth”; Space
Adventures newsroom. Accessed April