Space Tourism

Ready to book your spot? you’ll have to sign an informed consent waiver first

Billionaire Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos have already had their moments in commercial flight to space as they glorious flew and came back to earth in their own spaceflights. And as per the reports, though the tickets come at a hefty price, they have been selling out like no tomorrow. 

But the question still lurks: is spaceflight really that safe for the passengers? Does the industry need more regulations? Who is responsible for any mishap or injuries? 

Well, the answer to that last question is basically no one. And that’s due to the informed consent waiver. 

Let’s delve deeper into what that informed consent waiver means and its repercussions on spaceflights. 

Commercial flight to space: What do the tickets include? 

Now, the fact that the passengers aboard space flights will have to sign consent waiver is widely known. However, what else do they get for their tickets? The answer to this question varies from one flight to another. Have a look: 

SpaceX and Axiom 

The ticket for the mission of Axiom to the ISS includes: 

  • Training 
  • Life support 
  • Mission planning 
  • Crew provisions 
  • Medical support 
  • Eight days on the ISS 

As per NASA, staying on the ISS tends to cost the astronauts nearly $6.8 million per day. 

As per the 2021 price list of NASA, it would cost about $2,000 for each crew member per day for food and drinks aboard the ISS. Also, it will cost each person $1,500 per day for other things like sleeping bags, office supplies, hygiene products, and clothing. 

Blue Origin 

The winner of Blue Origin’s auction was expected to accompany Jeff Bezos and others on the 11-minute ride aboard the New Shephard craft. In any case, the ticket price of over $28 million will get a passenger: 

  • The flight 
  • Training 
  • On-site accommodation 

Blue Origin is yet to disclose the exact seat prices for commercial flight to space on New Shepard. 

As per recent reports, passengers need to show that they are able to deal with heights, support at least three times their weight, and walk over uneven surfaces before they step aboard. 

The passengers need a few days of training before they can get on the flight. Their training is going to include the learning procedures for entering and exiting the capsules, along with a mission simulation and learning techniques to move around in zero gravity. 

Virgin Galactic 

As per the company, at least 600 customers from 58 countries have already spent around $250,000 for one seat on the Unity spacecraft of Virgin Galactic that will make them see the edge of space. 

Going by the words of a spokesperson from the company, the tick is going to include: 

  • Training 
  • The flight 
  • A spacesuit 

Unlike the New Shepard rocket of Blue Origin, Unity is not going to pass the Kármán line, which is the imaginary boundary existing between the atmosphere and space. As Virgin Galactic’s Unity attains the right height, passengers are going to face a couple of minutes of weightlessness before that spacecraft comes back to earth. 

Signing the informed consent waiver: Are the regulations necessary? 

At present, how to regulate the flights is creating tension and getting more attention in the developing commercial spaceflight industry. As per the industry, overly tightening regulations are going to hamper its progress. On the other hand, there are congress members who feel that it’s high time to look into commercial flight to space in a similar way as commercial aviation. Let’s understand the various aspects of this situation. 

What does the ‘informed consent waiver’ mean on commercial flight to space? 

Though the FAA needs launch companies to protect property and people on the ground, the passengers tend to be governed solely by something called an ‘informed consent’ standard. 

It means they need to sign a waiver and know about all the risks – similar to the bungee jumpers and skydivers. It releases the company of any liability if the space tourists are killed or injured. As per the rules set by the FAA, passengers need to be aware that the government of the United States of America has not certified that launch vehicle or the reentry vehicle as secure and safe to carry spaceflight participants or space flight crew. 

An industry in the ‘learning period’ 

As per the industry, it is still mostly in the learning phase, where it is trying out new and different types of spacecraft and rockets. Thus, if the federal regulations are loose and self-regulations are maintained, the companies can better grow and develop their new tech. Therefore, the kind of regulations that tend to govern the requirements for general passengers, pilot training, the design and manufacturing of spacecraft would be harmful to an industry that is growing and innovating by the month. 

For instance, companies like SpaceX have registered some commendable progress. They have restored human spaceflight from US soil for the first time in almost a decade in 2021. As such, the industry believes that a crackdown of rules and regulations might impede its ability and capacity to innovate further. 

The case for stricter regulations for space flights 

On the other side of this debate is the group that believes time is rife for stricter regulations. 

The congressionally mandated learning period is going to be effective until 2023. The hands of the FAA will be tied through space tourism and commercial human flights to space have the prospects of soon becoming emerging markets. Therefore, the FAA will not be able to keep an eye on the safety and security of the flying individuals. In fact, there is a major part of the industry that is trying to get an extension of the said ‘learning period.’ 

Some people have expressed concerns at the dual mandate of the FAA to both promote and regulate the space flight industry. They consider it to be a major conflict of interest that can endanger the flying public. As per this group, the FAA should stop promoting commercial space and leave that work to NASA or the Commerce Department. They stress on the fact that it is the job of the FAA to regulate in general public interest. 

Commercial flight to space and air travel: Two different frontiers 

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation is an industry group that argues on the ground that space travel and air travel are two different things. The latter relates to a mature industry that has seen more than 100 years of tech development and 95 years of safety regulations.  

In fact, the FAA started regulating commercial aviation at the time of World War I when an excess of military airplanes suddenly started being available for commercial usage. The arena of the commercial space industry is completely different. In fact, it has recently started showing the kind of growth that people expected to come a lot earlier. 

For example, SpaceX flew the first human spaceflight mission for NASA in 2020. Since then, it has managed to complete two more spaceflights. Virgin Galactic by Richard Branson has taken people to space three times successfully. And this was after a crash back in 2014 that killed a pilot. On the other hand, Blue Origin by Bezos started by sending fifteen capsules into space, though none of them had people on board.  

Congress offered the commercial spaceflight industry that extended period to allow them to innovate newer approaches to human suborbital space flights without being regulated preemptively. This ‘learning phase’ is great for both the FAA and the industry to let the industry design the leading space tech of the world without bothering the FAA to outline rules and regulations in the light of consistently piling up data. 

The endnote 

The debate keeps raging regarding the regulation of commercial space flights, and the discussion in this matter is going to go on for a long time now. In the meantime, the only hope is that both the FAA and the companies can come up with a solution benefiting them.

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