LOS ANGELES – Thrill seekers are plunking down six figures to ride rockets that haven't even been built yet, and a new airline called Virgin Galactic (search) promises to be up and soaring in the next three years. Still, the budding space tourism industry faces a myriad of safety concerns — in the sky and on the ground — that must be resolved before any paying passenger takes off.
The rules that will govern the industry in the United States remain under discussion between federal regulators and rocket developers, and legislation is still before Congress.
The pace of negotiations and the ultimate shape of the regulations could determine whether the sky-high enthusiasm for space tourism — fueled by the historic suborbital flights of SpaceShipOne (search) — grows or wanes, especially among investors.
Federal Aviation Administration chief Marion C. Blakey this week visited Xcor Aerospace (search), a rocket developer just down the Mojave Airport flight line from SpaceShipOne's home. She talked of partnership with the new industry and said it was important for the United States to be the world leader.
She made clear, however, that broad safety issues are the agency's topic No. 1.
"Our first concern will be the safety of the uninvolved public, making sure that as this grows and develops that we're doing everything we can to protect the folks on the ground, to make sure that the people who go into space understand the risks," she said. "It will be a risky business for many years to come, no doubt."
The FAA for several years has been studying what the average passenger will face from G-force and psychological factors, and what type of medical fitness he or she will require, Blakey said.
There is also a question of what information a passenger should have, about safety records, for example, to assess risk and make a meaningful informed-consent statement.
Patti Grace Smith, associate administrator for the FAA's office of commercial space transportation, indicated passenger awareness is one of the "hurdles" in the way of making space travel as routine as aviation.
"The kind of threshold that we will have to figure out how to achieve is the cognizance issue: How do we know that they understand the risk that they are taking? How do we know that they understand what they're doing?" she said.
Xcor President Jeff Greason, who hopes to build a rocket plane that can fly off a runway, said talks with the government have come far but there is much work ahead on the regulatory front.
Greason said he is in total agreement that it is necessary for regulators to ensure that potential passengers have adequate information. But he sees a "critical distinction" between the risk faced by the uninvolved public and that faced by those who want to fly into space.
"The uninvolved public has to be held to a very high level of safety," he said. "There's no reason they should be exposed to a level of risk that's different than they see from any other aspect of industrial life.
"The involved passenger, the people who are deliberately putting their lives and treasure at risk to open the space frontier they've dreamed of their entire lives, as long as they know what they're getting into, I think they have to be allowed to take that risk."
One of the nation's advantages, he asserted, is that there is still a "culture of risk acceptance as long as it's only for the participant."
Blakey believes that passengers through many years of airline travel have developed an expectation of a certain amount of regulatory oversight.
"What that should be in commercial space, we're working with right now. And as I say, we definitely see that the level of risk is very different," she said.
Greason said commercial space transportation, for it to succeed, has to chart new ground to improve the level of safety set by government programs such as the space shuttle.
"That means the classic regulatory prescriptive approach of 'We'll do it just like all those other successful very safe personal space transportation vehicles' can't work," he said. "It's a paradoxical, hard to understand thing, but in order to achieve greater safety, we have to allow many approaches to be tried, because only in that way can we find out experimentally those which offer greater safety."