By Allison Lampert
MONTREAL (Reuters) - The United Nation's civil aviation body, currently wrestling with how to help airlines maintain safety over conflict zones, is taking first steps toward protection for commercial vessels in space.
Commercial space travel took a big leap this week after the U.S. space agency NASA awarded a combined $6.8 billion to Boeing and Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, to build commercially owned and operated "space taxis" to fly astronauts to the International Space Station. The NASA contract allows Boeing to sell rides to tourists; SpaceX already planned to offer trips to tourists, but did not say if it would fly tourists on its NASA missions .
"We’re starting to look at (suborbital space travel) more closely," said a representative on the International Civil Aviation Organization's (ICAO) governing council who spoke to Reuters on condition of anonymity.
Montreal-based ICAO will hold its first conference on issues related to commercial space travel in early 2015 and will discuss whether it should expand its governance to include oversight of suborbital space travel.
ICAO has come under criticism for not warning of the risks to commercial aircraft over conflict zones after a Malaysian airline was downed over eastern Ukraine in July, killing all 298 people aboard. The 191-member agency is not responsible for opening or closing airspace, a task left to individual states.
Industry experts said ICAO, which promotes the development of global civil aviation including air transport standards, should play a role in planning for the retrieval of space debris, for instance, at a time when private enterprise is eyeing the final frontier.
"People have just begun to think about it, but how it is to be instituted is not clear yet,” said Prashant Sukul, India's representative on ICAO’s governing council. "If it's not ICAO, then who is it going to be?"
Sukul, one of a handful of representatives hoping to replace retiring secretary general Raymond Benjamin in 2015, said he is campaigning on a "space platform."
Discussion aimed at broadening ICAO’s mandate is in initial stages and could take years to apply. Sukul acknowledged the challenge space represents for an agency that can take years to tackle key issues on Earth.
After a Korean airliner was shot down in 1983 by the Soviet Union, it took 15 years for an amendment to be added to ICAO’s founding articles - the Chicago convention - that said states should not shoot down civilian airliners.
(Reporting by Allison Lampert; Editing by Amran Abocar and Leslie Adler)