Space tourism's lack of regulations could spell disaster for industry

The first commercial space flights are slated to take off in 2020, but the FAA can't implement new regulations until 2023.

The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket explodes (photo credit: REUTERS)
The Virgin Galactic SpaceShipTwo rocket explodes
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Space tourism is one of the most exciting new upcoming industries today, and some of the first flights are expected to take off in 2020. However, a recent investigation revealed that any safety regulations existing are bare bones at best.
According to a POLITICO investigation, there are only a loose collection of authorities with any oversight on the commercial space tourism industry, with no agency actually being empowered to create or enforce any sort of safety regulations.
Regulations do exist made by the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) for public safety near launch facilities. However, everything on board the space ship itself is out of their hands, and until 2023, the FAA isn't allowed to create any regulations for onboard safety whatsoever.
And this can potentially be catastrophic.
According to paperwork filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission, the Virgin Group's space tourism arm Virgin Galactic is slated to fly around a thousand people by 2022. Currently, no regulations exist to prevent an accident from happening.
If, however, an accident does occur, there would certainly be an investigation. The question of who would have the authority to investigate it is just as confusing.
On October 31, 2014, Virgin Galactic's experimental space ship the VSS Enterprise crashed in the Mojave Desert due to an in-flight breakup, and the crash was investigated by the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB). However, it isn't guaranteed that the NTSB will investigate every crash.
According to a memorandum of understanding from 2004 signed by the NTSB, the FAA and the US Air Force, all space launch accidents on Pentagon-licensed rockets will be subject to a military investigation. It further states that FAA and NTSB will handle commercial space accidents, while adding that the NTSB can only investigate accidents that affect people or property outside the launch area.
Furthermore, if a NASA astronaut was on board, then an investigation would be carried out by an altogether different agency.
The 2004 memorandum is "in need of a lot of updating," Joe Sedor, the NTSB's chief of major investigations in the Office of Aviation Safety, told POLITICO.
However, the commercial space tourism industry isn't going to wait for the government to catch up, with major industry players Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, Boeing and SpaceX seeming ready to kick off some of the first flights. And currently, the only sorts of legal regulations are a waiver of informed consent – similar to skydiving – and a demonstration of safe launches in order to get a license from the FAA.
Thirty-five of these licenses were issued in 2018. By 2020, it's expected this will spike to 52. According to what FAA administrator Steve Dickson said at a Chamber of Commerce event in December, his current staff isn't capable of handling such a large number.
"While this way of doing business worked well for a few commercial launches a year the way it used to be, the pace has picked up to the point where it’s quickly becoming impractical,” Dickson said.
The system is in dire need of fixing before the first flights take off the ground, as if an accident occurs, it could hurt the entire industry as it's just beginning to take off – especially, according to an unnamed industry source that spoke to POLITICO, if the casualties aren't just a pilot, but civilians.
“A bad day for Virgin is a bad day for Blue [Origin]," the source said. "And a bad day for SpaceX is bad for Boeing.”