A New Frontier In Space Travel: The Law Several private companies are developing spacecraft that will take anyone into space who wants to go, provided they can pay for the ride. But the challenges of commercial human spaceflight are as much about laws and regulations as they are about technology.
NPR logo

A New Frontier In Space Travel: The Law

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138159514/138168571" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
A New Frontier In Space Travel: The Law

A New Frontier In Space Travel: The Law

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/138159514/138168571" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript

SIEGEL: And as NPR's Joe Palca reports, some of the challenges that lie ahead are as much about the law as they are about technology.

JOE PALCA: Unidentified Man: Now, the next step is routine, safe, low cost and reliable spaceflight for everyone.

(SOUNDBITE OF A PROMOTIONAL VIDEO)

PALCA: This promotional video has it just about right.

GEORGE NIELD: I'm convinced that in the next few years we're going to see multiple companies flying several times a week.

PALCA: That's George Nield. He's head of the office of Commercial Space Transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration.

NIELD: And that'll mean hundreds of launches every year, with thousands of people getting a chance to experience space flight firsthand.

PALCA: Joanne Irene Gabrynowicz teaches space law at the University of Mississippi. For example, she says people on commercial space flights will not be called passengers.

JOANNE IRENE GABRYNOWICZ: If you are a passenger, it is understood that your job is to sit in the seat and read your book or whatever.

PALCA: Reading a bad novel or sitting through an extended weather delay is about the worst airline passengers have to worry about. Space is a whole 'nother story. No one thinks space travel will be as safe as air travel for quite a while. And participants on these first flights may do more than sit in their seats.

IRENE GABRYNOWICZ: There's some thought there that perhaps the participant may need to help the crew in some way. Or they may want to.

PALCA: It's hardly the wild West, but human space travel has a bit of wild West flavor.

MICHAEL MENDELSON: In some ways, I think the situation we're in is analogous to the barnstorming era.

PALCA: Michael Mendelson works in space law in Washington, D.C. In the early days of aviation, pilots would perform aerobatic tricks and then offer adventurous spectators rides on their newfangled flying machines.

MENDELSON: It's not going to be quite the same because technology has advanced quite a bit. But there has to be a certain degree of willing assumption of risk by the participant.

PALCA: Mendelson believes it will probably take a catastrophic accident to force answers to those kinds of questions.

MENDELSON: When something happens - and unfortunately, tragically, something will happen - that's when the system is going to shake out, the market will shake out.

PALCA: It's also bound to make the FAA review its licensing requirements. Aerospace consultant Herb Bachner says companies worry about strict regulations that could strangle their new industry.

HERB BACHNER: You don't want to have regulations that force you into a particular way of thinking or a particular engineering design when you are in this business of testing and evaluation. They are, rightfully so, extremely concerned about this.

PALCA: For now, FAA's regulations are not that restrictive. The agency's George Nield says it will be up to the buying public to decide whether to risk a trip into space.

NIELD: The launch operators are going to have to thoroughly brief all of their prospective customers on all the hazards, all the risks, all the things that could go wrong, that they could be injured or even killed during these flights. And if, after hearing that, they still would like to go, they'll need to sign some paperwork and go have a good flight.

PALCA: Joe Palca, NPR News.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.