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Space tourists fly at their own risk - nobody is regulating their safety. Experts say ticket-holders are accepting their role in an 'experiment'

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Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson and Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos.
Virgin Galactic/REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne/File Photo
  • This month, billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson blasted into sub-orbital flights.

  • Space law experts told insider Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic ticket-holders fly at their own risk.

  • Federal agencies do not plan to regulate the flights till at least 2023 in order to give the companies freedom to innovate.

  • See more stories on Insider's business page.

When billionaires Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson blasted off into space it represented the dawn of space tourism for many, but experts say the industry is far from ready for the masses.

There are currently no regulations for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic space flights when it comes to anything from passenger safety to air traffic and environmental pollution. Space law experts told Insider the industry is still too new to be heavily regulated and federal agencies will likely take many years to develop policies to make trips to the edge of space as safe as a flight across the country.

The Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to regulate commercial travel to outer space through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but Congress has imposed a moratorium through 2023 on regulating the industry.

Frans Von der Dunk, a professor of Space Law at University of Nebraska-Lincoln, told Insider the government is attempting to protect the industry in its infancy so that innovators like Bezos, Branson, and SpaceX CEO Elon Musk can have the freedom to develop new technology and test as many flights as possible, unfettered by heavy government regulations.

As it stands, individuals that currently purchase space tourism tickets must sign an informed consent document and a series of waivers releasing the companies from liability if the ticket-holders are injured or killed.

Spokespeople from Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic did not respond to a request for comment. But, the director of McGill's Institute of Air and Space Law, Ram Jakhu, told Insider that those who purchase tickets for Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic flights are acknowledging their participation in an experiment and are not classified as "passengers" but rather as "flight participants."

Von der Dunk said that while the space-tourism companies will not be held responsible for any injuries or fatalities suffered by flight participants, the companies are being held to high standards when it comes to third parties on the ground. The groups are subject to thorough reviews before each flight to ascertain the spacecrafts will not cause any damage to innocent bystanders on their departure or reentry to the launch area.

"The safety of the passengers is not under consideration during the reviews," Von der Dunk said. "They know they're participating in a risky thing. The main concern for regulators is that no third parties are impacted."

While flights will not be regulated until at least 2023, Jakhu said federal agencies might step in sooner than that if there are a series of fatalities. He said that he believes the industry will not be regulated until a serious accident occurs.

"No matter how competent the companies are, what can go wrong, will go wrong," Jakhu said. "I'm sure someday soon there will be an accident. Blue Origin's rocket is essentially four people sitting on a bomb and accidents happen."

In 2014, federal safety investigators stepped in after a fatal Virgin Galactic crash during a test flight. The company was charged with fixing its air-breaking descent device, which had deployed too early during the flight.

As space tourism becomes more popular, the FAA will also have to figure out a way to regulate the air traffic so that it does not conflict with airplane schedules. The industry will also be forced to look into regulations regarding spacecraft air pollution.

Jakhu and Von der Dunk told Insider they would advise ticket-holders to look into procuring life insurance before a space tour - though the policies could be more expensive than the flight ticket itself due to the risk involved with launching a rocket.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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