Humans have always been adventurous and pioneering species. At very high risks, humans have climbed difficult mountain terrains and gone into adventures to explore never before seen hostile locations while not having any real idea on what they might find. These risk-taking adventurous spirits, even though at times costly, have ultimately helped the human civilization to progress, evolve and thrive. Since the early 20th century, space and air have been two of man’s biggest frontiers. Only in the last few years has there been another spark of innovations in space flights, since the space aeronautics industry captured the interest of interest to private sector firms, that too, at the behest of encouragement from the government. Commercialization and privatization of space flights has brought in the much needed energy in the space industry. In fact, privatization alone has brought about new possibilities and concepts in the few years it has been implemented. However, there are many obstacles that still block the achievement of the goal of making space flights a reality for the common man. This study will investigate the perceptions, barriers and regulations involved in private space flights and how the latest launch failure of both Orbital Sciences and SpaceX rockets including the 2014 accident of SpaceShipTwo that is still being investigated by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the National Transport and Safety Board (NTSB) and the manner in which the outcomes affected the view of the public towards commercial space travel.

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Space travel industry has a comparatively short history. In spite of its initial sluggishness, the industry has experienced rapid developments over the last 20 or so years. Once a government-only industry, the space industry has now also attracted investments from private entities. Since the initial commercial space travel that occurred in the year 2001, quite a number of other rich space tourists have voyaged into space by purchasing space flight tickets. Currently, over 625 individuals have booked sub-orbital space travel on the Virgin Galactic (Soular, 2013). However, there are still many huge barriers in turning space travel into a reality for the common man. This paper looks into this issue in depth and analyzingthe reasons thereto.

Literature Review

It has been quite a difficult year for space travel. The recent disintegration of Falcon 9, a SpaceX rocket that was bound for the ISS (International Space Station) was the first for that space vehicle, however the case is not the same for NASA which has now witnessed a 75% failure rate in the last 8 months out of four spacecrafts it had contracted to ferry supplies to the ISS. In October last year, an Orbital Sciences rocket, Antares, crashed and burned several seconds after launch. Then in April of this year an unmanned Russian Spacecraft, Progress 59, lost contact with the ground station causing it to veer out of orbit and later disintegrate in the atmosphere. Both Antares and Progress 59 space vehicles were carrying equipment, food and scientific research material to the ISS, just as the case was with the recent disintegration of Dragon, another SpaceX rocket during its lift off from Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida. All 3 accidents seem to not be related, and space industry stakeholders have been repeating over and over again their usual tune after the occurrence of the latest accident: that rocket science will always be rocket science and a certain degree of failure cannot be avoided. However, despite these sentiments, the many accidents have numerous spectators worried, particularly members of Congress who are shelving NASA’s bill and have of late been reluctant to allocate funds for the agency’s partnerships with private commercial entities such as SpaceX (Moskowitz, 2015).

The support of the general public towards the commercialization of the space industry also took a hit last year barely 72 hours after the Orbital Sciences Antares mishap when SpaceShipTwo, a Virgin Galactic suborbital spacecraft, crashed during a test flight, resulting in one fatality. Yet despite there being an investigation into that accident, Virgin Galactic is still moving ahead with its plans to fly space tourists across short arcs on the edge of space form its futuristic New Mexico facility referred to as Spaceport America (Moskowitz, 2015). In cases such as this where the project involves flying only rich people paying huge amounts of money to get them briefly into space, then many people are skeptical and justifiably so that such a project would bring any significant or meaningful benefit to the society as a whole. As it stands, every tourist has paid over $20 million for a short 7 day trip and even if this price was ever cut even drastically, it is still hard to imagine such trips ever being affordable to anyone who is not super-rich (Stromberg, 2014).

Future gRoth and potential of licensing

NASA (as may have been believed), however, is not the only federal agency involved in space flights anymore. As commercial flights are getting closer to reality, the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) published a framework structure of the practices it recommended for human space travel safety. The framework referred to as Recommended Practices for Human Space Flight Occupant Safety was published in September 16th by the agency towards forming a baseline if there was to be a need for the federal government to start giving regulations at some point in the long-term. Of late, commercial space flight programs have been gaining momentum, particularly after the completion of NASA’s shuttle program in the year 2011. The space agency is now awarding contracts to private firms for sending the first commercial crew to the ISS (International Space Station) (Williams, 2014).

However, by publishing recommended practices, the FAA could in effect be ushering a new phase of space flights that will be spearheaded by private firms. In spite of NASA’s domination of the Space industry, FAA has in fact been responsible for licensing and regulating any private firms and entities engaged in commercial space travel. Indeed, going by a fact sheet published by the administration, its Commercial Space Transportation (AST) office has licensed over 220 launches, including private commercial launched by firms such as SpaceX, Lockheed Martin and Boeing (Williams, 2014).

To look into this further, the license assessment procedure entails environmental, public safety, foreign policy and national security reviews and an insurance requirement. Expecting a commercial space flights industry in the future, the FAA has commenced issuing tentative licenses instead of full permits for launches and re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere for all reusable rockets that are to fly to the earth’s sub-orbital. Additionally, FAA’s framework document is assuming that these space vehicles will be staying in Earth’s orbit for a maximum of two weeks and with the ability to make the flight back to earth in one calendar day if need be (Williams, 2014).

It is important to note here that orbital voyages and docking, or flights taking more than the two set weeks, or any activities to be conducted outside the space vehicle, and flights to go beyond Earth’s orbit are not directly addressed in this framework document. However, even though on the way, commercial human space travel is not yet a common reality. The recommended practices are basically focused on the safety of the flight’s human occupants and not mission assurance or public safety. The framework document makes recommendations to space vehicle manufacturers (commercial), and to space flights providers on the operations, design and manufacturing of the spacecrafts. However, in spite of the document being published at a time when the idea of space tourism is growing in popularity and closer to reality, the practices recommended therein do not actually have any statutory, regulatory powers (Williams, 2014).

Space Tourism

Nowadays, trends are changing though and newer types of space flights and travels are emerging. 2001 ushered in a new era of space tourism, as Dennis Tito, a rich Californian, became the first ever paying passenger for a commercial space flight (Seedhouse, 2014). Tito paid twenty million dollars to be on the Russian spacecraft Soyuz TM-32, via dealings between an American firm known as Space Adventures and MirCorp, a Russian firm, which was in charge of the Mir space station. Many other people have since followed Dennis Tito’s footsteps including Mark Shuttleworth (a technological magnate from South Africa), Anousheh Ansari (an Iranian businesswoman), and Gregory Olsen (an American entrepreneur) among other rich people (Seedhouse, 2014). Given that, these flights were orbital in nature all of these space tourists had to undergo hard training together with professional astronauts, as a preparation for their missions (Seo, n.d).

Viewing these events or mission launches as the dawn of the ‘Age of Space tourism’ would be an overstatement. It is true that space has returned to the top of global policy agenda, particularly its commercial agenda, however, why has this taken over four decades and why is it that only three nations (the U.S., Russia and Japan) seemingly have the capability of successfully putting humans in space (China’s capability is yet to be proven). And why is it also that, none of these countries has commercially and sustainably promoted space travel (Sawaya, 2004).

It would be an understatement to say though, that Space travel is still a risky and dangerous business to engage in, despite the 4 decades of innovation and development. Indeed space travel is the most dangerous mode of transportation. In the United States space program alone, there have been 17 recorded deaths among the 732 people the program has taken to space. That amounts to 2,320 fatalities per 100,000 travelers or passengers, which is a staggering 45,000 times more risky than flying in a commercial aircraft. In other terms, according to statistics, 2 space shuttles will crash for every 113 launches, which is a 1.8% rate of failure (Sawaya, 2004).

These statistics would not be acceptable for commercial aircraft, which experience only 0.4 accidents per 100,000 departures in a year across the whole of continental United States and its territories. Put in another way, space travel, although very desirable is presently just too risky to turn into a major commercial tourist activity. It is even far more dangerous than extreme sports such as sky-diving or scuba diving (Sawaya, 2004).

In the same year, 2004, the federal government enacted Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) to mandate the FAA to regulate the safety of occupants in commercial spaceflights within the United States. Under the CSLAA, every space commercial launch, landing andman oeuvre/operation will be attended and reviewed by FAA officials; all participants of spaceflights will also be taken in writing through an informed consent procedure; a consent process in which they will be informed about the possible risks during a launch and re-entry of the spaceflight. The safety record and failure rate of the launch pad will also be explained to the participants (Seedhouse, 2014).

The private space travel industry is certainly witnessing an increase in the number of participants due to the potential benefits to be accrued from the possible profitable business of space tourism. Some of the participants in this industry include; Elon Musk and Paul Allen (SpaceX), Burt Rutan (Scaled Composites), Sir Richard Branson (Virgin Galctic), Ansari family (Ansari X prize) Davis Thompson (Orbital Sciences) and Bob Bigelow (Bigelow Aerospace)(Fox, 2010; Gerbis, 2012).

Historical Capitalist interest in Space

Similar to the space race for pride and prestige that took place between countries during the Cold War; private firms are now engaging in what has lately been termed “the capitalist’s space race” to claim the title of being the brand that first reached revolutionary technological breakthroughs in terms of space travel and to subsequently take tourists to the moon and beyond (Winslow, 2008). Great innovations have actually already been witnessed in the areas of safety, convenience and cost that had initially limited space flight, via the design and development of better propulsion engines, highly cost-effective, reusable and solar sails-equipped rockets (Seo, n.d).

The space industry’s history has not been without tragedy as has been noted earlier. There have been a number of fatal accidents that ended up attracting a huge amount of negative media coverage and global concerns. In the year 1967, for example, a Soviet Union astronaut, VladmirKomarov died when the Soyuz 1 crashed due to several technical problems, including the failure of its parachute upon the spacecraft’s re-entry into the atmosphere. As this was the first death to have happened during a spaceflight, the incident led to enhancements in terms of the design of the spaceship (Melina, 2011).

In the U.S. The first tragic to occur on flight is the explosion of the space shuttle Challenger in the year 1986 barely one minute thirteen seconds into its flight, killing all its seven crew members. In response to this fatal accident, the United States space program was halted albeit temporarily, for 32 months, as the program’s directors and the public weighed and questioned the safety of spaceflights (Rutan, 2006; Melina, 2011; Foust, 2003).

Currently, the FAA and NASA are collaborating through shared roles and responsibilities for the regulation of commercial spaceflights in the future between Earth and the ISS (International Space Station). As part of the collaboration between the two federal government agencies, the FAA has the role of issuing permits and licenses to commercial firms provided that they do comply with the safety standards set for the spacecraft’s launch and re-entry. This will allow both federal agencies to incorporate lessons and experiences learned by the two separately over the years they have been in operation (Chow, 2012).

In contrast to the initial days of aviation, activities in both space and atmosphere are governed today by an intricate legal structure. Space travels are treated somehow differently from other global transport industries, such as air transport and shipping, which are regulated by effective and comprehensive national and global laws, some of which are backed by international treaties. It is increasingly becoming apparent that the existing regulatory framework needs to be revised and reformed. These reforms are needed especially for space tourism sub-sector so that space travel service firms are enabled to place orders for spacecrafts and plan passenger shuttles and in order that space vehicle manufacturing firms are able to finalize their passenger spacecraft details. As also to attract investments, which they require to put their spacecrafts designs into production, the proper regulations are required to understand and control investor risks (Collins & Yonemoto, 1998).

Deeper look into regulations

Some regulations and laws do conflict each other in language and effect in their attempts to regulate the space industry. These same regulations do require businesses to go through a difficult process when applying for licenses, approvals, and permits for a launch or a space mission. However, in the last ten years, private space firms have benefitted from fewer restrictions concerning the operation and testing of their technologies. These benefits have also been brought by the CLSAA (Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act) of 2004 that limited the capability of the FAA from coming up with any more operational or design regulations on commercially produced spacecrafts. The act, in effect means that, private firms need only to get a testing permit, and to file certain safety-associated data, and to adhere only to a few other prior standards in order to go ahead with their ventures. However, it looks like the recent crash of Spaceship Two (Virgin Galactic) in October last year may alter all that — the crash may force the government to issue or enact regulations for private space travel (Grush, 2014).

For now, the Federal Aviation Administration is still awaiting the official results of the investigations into the accident, before it promulgates any regulatory changes. The idea behind CLSAA was to help bring about growth of the commercial space travel industry. The act envisaged that free of government restrictions, private firms would have the freedom they require to be innovative and creative with their spacecrafts, spurring the industry to grow at a faster rate. There was also an unwritten assumption that test pilots, similar to thrill seekers and mountains climbers, know the risks involved, thus negating the need for too many regulations (Grush, 2014).

After Spaceship Two’s accident, the British owner of the company behind the shuttle, Sir Richard Branson, compared the incident to the start of the aviation industry where many crashes occurred. He noted that in the early days of the aviation industry, there were many accidents but the industry eventually became safe. What he implies is that space travel can and will in some time be as routine and as safe as flying. Even though this is true, it is highly unlikely that space travel will acquire the same reliability and safety of modern day aviation (Lopata, 2015).

The reason for this is based on fundamental thermodynamics and physics-specifically in the huge amounts of energy that is necessary to get to space. The accident involving Spaceship Two have brought into awareness the risks involved in space travel. The emerging space travel industry will likely suffer more tragedies in the future. If the public is not made aware of these risks, there will eventually be a backlash that could result in irreparable damages to the whole space travel program. Much more will be lost than commercial profit or astronauts. What is at stake in future tragedies is that mankind will lose its long-term prospects as a space-faring civilization (Lopata, 2015).

Still, the unregulated environment was not meant to last indefinitely. In the year 2012, the U.S. congress extended the CLSAA to last until October, 1 this year, with no further extensions expected after this period elapses. Initially, the act was intended as a pause on regulations, if no test pilots suffered serious injury or pilots died during space vehicle tests, and as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) review correctly pointed out, that provision has already been violated. The NTSB (National Transportation Safety Board) is now investigating the accident (Grush, 2014).

However, it may be months before the agency comes to a conclusionidentifyingthe cause of the accident. According to Virgin Galactic’s statement, the spacecraft’s fuel tanks and engines were found still intact, proving that the crash was not caused by hardware failures. As such, the NTSB is concentrating on SpaceShipTwo’sfeathering tools that were supposed to shift the shuttle’s wings upon its re-entry into the earth’s atmosphere. The NTSB investigation is along the lines that the pilot of the spacecraft unlocked the feathering devices quite early, leading to the mid-flight disintegration of the vehicle and its wings (Grush, 2014).

While more laws and regulation may likely stifle the industry, it does generally indicate a positive trend for space private commercial entities. It shows that the private space sub-sector has grown beyond its infancy stage. More regulations are also showing that the space technologies are now moving towards a more standardized mainstream environment. In terms of commercial aviation, the Federal AviationAdministrationrequires that firms provethat the failure rates of their aircrafts are one in a billion. Assuring that kind of a probability, the standard for space vehicles would then imply that if a spacecraft met that standard, space travels would no longer be as risky, they would be rightfully regarded as safe (Grush, 2014).

Yet the public is quickly losing interest in space travel developments: (1) since the speed of space developments is very slow, particularly when compared to the rapid pace of evolutions in personal computer; (2) because NASA is restricted by taxpayer surveillance groups to only depict human activities in space in the least exciting way; (3) because the exaggerated and real risks of travelling to outer space scares them and lastly because of the minimal planning and public debate into the private trips to outer space (National Space Society (NSS), 2012).

The 2004 CLSAA promotes the development of this new commercial space travel industry and mandates the FAA and the DOT (Department of Transportation) with the responsibility for regulating human space travels. In setting the standards for who can and who cannot go into space, these government institutions can potentially greatly affect the long-term prospects of space tourism industry (National Space Society (NSS), 2012).

Apart from the actual measurable risks related with spacecraft reliability, both the public and private sector have been made to believe that the outer space itself is not a safe place to go to, because of (1) the so called “effects of weightlessness” which is actually an artificial risk created by federal government space agencies, opining that such an environment is not suitable for human life; and (2) space radiation, which is unfortunately a real hazard that is heightened by the need to make space vehicle thin to reduce the launch weight (National Space Society (NSS), 2012).

Moreover, apart the barriers due to government action, public misperceptions about commercial space travel have also led to barriers, particularly since, many of these misperceptions are encouraged albeit not purposefully, the same policymakers who are tasked with regulating commercial space travel (National Space Society (NSS), 2012).

Analysis, Conclusions, and Recommendations

The fact is that, only 18 of the 732 humans who have flown or attempted flying to space have died, fourteen of them on two space shuttle flights and four on 2 Soyuz flights. This is equal to a 4.19% fatality rate. Compared to other human activities, this failure rate is equal to that of climbing Mount Everest. Rich Hauck, the CEO of AXA Space (a top space insurance firm), a former astronaut himself, believes that the risk of dying needs to be greatly cut before commercial space exploration will be widely accepted (Foust, 2003).

In spite of all these challenges, industry supporters are still optimistic. The president of Commercial Spaceflight Federation, Mr. Eric Stallmer, argues that such things happen when one is pushing the envelope with regards to space travel, however, he further states, there are generally more good days than bad. Perhaps his sentiments reflect the “acceptable failure rates” for unmanned spaceflights. However, when can we say that these failure are too many? Where is the red line? And there is even a bigger question to ponder: Can man ever reach space with a feasible rate of reliability? Industry proponents would love to eventually reach a state of airline-like operations, however it still is not clear whether space missions are ever going to reach that kind of state (Moskowitz, 2015). After many years of research, there is still a significant failure rate in rocket launches and re-entry (about 4%), a figure that is significantly higher than that of the aviation industry. Given that the potential customers of firms such as Virgin Galactic would solely be going to space for tourism (instead of, say scientific research), it is possible that the level of failure would frighten off clients and eventually ruin the commercial tourism industry. Although many people have signed up for the $250,000 suborbital trip aboard SpaceShipTwo, a couple of them have already been scared off after hearing about the latest incident. Virgin Galactic’s October crash which resulted in one fatality has cast doubts into the company’s plans, and even though the firm is pressing forward, the incident will at the very least significantly delay commercial space flights (Stromberg, 2014).

The biggest matter at stake is the failure rate of space travel. And even though some industry experts think this can be reduced, putting space travels at par with extreme sports such as climbing Mount Everest — an activity that despite its risks attracts about 1000 rich thrill seeking tourists annually (Stromberg, 2014). The majority of firms in this industry see space as an attractive business opportunity. Companies such as the United Launch Alliance are paid about $225 million per flight by the United States government to lift scientific and military satellites into space. Huge profits are also a clear motivation behind the plans for carrying tourists. For potential tourists, their goal might be purely experiential; the thrill of having the spectacular view of earth from the orbit and that of feeling several minutes of weightlessness. However, the motivation of the U.S. government to promote the commercialization of the space industry is slightly different. At least publicly, the transfer of astronaut shuttling functions and satellite launches to private firms have been proposed as cost cutting measures that will then allow NASA to concentrate on bringing revolutionary technologies and missions (Stromberg, 2014).

With all the challenges facing space flights, why are private firms so interested in its commercial potential, particularly given it extremely high development expenses and its reputation for failures and time overruns? A dire need to expand might be a simplistic answer to that question. However, it is true and that in addition to the government’s support to private companies might not, for a long time, bring the full commercial possibilities of space within the reach of tourists. Until such a time is reached, there are several moderate business opportunities in the near future in the industry. Take for instance, Pentagon’s Falcon project to create a hypersonic bomber plane by the year 2025. This is one of those highly probable potentials of the space industry, coast to coast travel of continental United States will take only half an hour on such a plane, while Sydney, Australia will only be sixty minutes away from other major capitals such as London and Paris. The spacecrafts to be developed in the Falcon project would allow individuals to experience microgravity, while travelling in the upper zones of the atmosphere. Hypersonic aircrafts would reduce travel periods by over ninety percent compared to 50% of the decommissioned Concorde planes. Also, such hypersonic planes, if they were to become a reality, would have highly improved fuel efficiency for a broader global reach. And flying at a level twice that of Concorde in the upper reaches of the atmosphere, the planes would cause in less noise pollution, which was one of the biggest challenges to Concorde’s further development (Sawaya, 2004).

If the general public believes that there is a lack of an ethical private space commercial industry, another space commerce obstacle may emerge in terms of excessive or restrictive government regulations to address the public’s concern. Development of the commercial space industry is already not a priority for many individuals. And if the public for any reason feels that the space industry is not developing ethically, there is a distinct possibility that they will fight for government regulation in the sector either to stop or control such unethical practices. Ethical space industry policies should be enacted now in the early stages of the emerging industry when is still quite easy to come up with safeguards and to start self policing practices. By implementing such policies a potential obstacle to commercialization of space travel can be avoided. It is also worth noting that one of the best ways to circumvent future obstacles to the industry is to point out the industry’s success as well as how it has already benefitted communities around the globe (Livingston, n.d).

Successful space commercial ventures state very powerful statements and greatly support the issue of reducing or eliminating altogether space commerce barriers. As the human civilization moves forward into the space commercialization and exploration expansion, elimination of financial, legal, and bureaucratic barriers ought to be a priority. Additionally, the industry players must also understand that their behaviors and actions need to reflect acceptable business standards. Otherwise, the private space industry runs the risk of bringing unto the industry a lot of regulations with regards to the industry’s commercialization that might end up stifling growth in the nascent space industry.


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