Society is rapidly approaching an era in which ordinary civilians can purchase tickets to become passengers on space vehicles. Companies worldwide are deep in the development of infrastructure and technology to provide spaceflight for amusement and transportation. These endeavors deviate fundamentally from traditional spaceflight and raise questions about the ethical implications of commercial spaceflight with civilian passengers.
Of the 562 humans who have participated in spaceflight, almost everyone has been on a government mission for research. Merriam Webster defines astronaut as “a person who travels beyond Earth’s atmosphere,” and when most of us picture an astronaut we think of Neil Armstrong walking on the moon, or scientists performing research aboard the International Space Station (ISS). However, this mental definition of astronaut will become increasingly challenged as the space industry privatizes, a process that began in 1990. That year, Congress passed a law requiring NASA to purchase launch services from commercial providers when possible. In 2010, NASA put an end to the Space Shuttle program altogether and started offering grants to private companies capable of shuttling NASA astronauts into orbit. This combination of events opened the floodgates for commercial space companies to begin developing new technology.
The wave of new companies entering the spaceflight industry in the 1990s and 2000s made leaps in space technology development, and their successes have encouraged them to pursue new opportunities beyond the bounds of conventional research-based space travel. This is where the concept of space tourism begins. Until now, all spaceflight has been some sort of “mission,” typically carried out by a government program to conduct scientific research. Instead, commercial space companies are now looking to expand into the private sector by offering recreational space flights to civilian consumers. To date, there have been a small number of sub-orbital space flights conducted with civilians on board, but none at the scale of what these companies hope to achieve. Flying paying customers into space is an entirely new form of human-space interaction, and it is essential that we carefully consider the new implications this has on the space industry.
In the past, all space vehicle crews have been thoroughly screened, highly trained, and extremely prepared for their space missions. These astronauts are a select few of the 100,000+ applicants NASA receives for their space program. These astronauts and the organization behind them are motivated by science, innovation, and technological advancement. But the concept of paid space tourism shifts that motivation from these rather altruistic ideals to simple financial gain. This is where ethical concerns are born. While NASA will only select the most qualified individuals, a private company is more likely to take an ill-equipped passenger to space just because they are willing to pay tens of millions of dollars. With money as the primary motivating factor instead of scientific discovery, a private company is less likely to do their full due diligence in verifying the qualifications of prospective civilian spaceflight participants.
The idea that these spaceflight passengers will be less equipped to deal with being on a flight is not the only concern. Another is that the flights themselves are highly dangerous. Humans have been blasting off from the surface of Earth for less than 58 years, a short time for a new technology. Space flight, regardless of “scientific certainty,” is anything but certain. Few are likely to forget the tragedies of the Space Shuttles Challenger and Columbia just 17 years apart. Like the revolutionary Titanic, or the cutting-edge Hindenburg, the promises of radical new travel technologies have often proved perilous to their unfortunate early passengers. Even disregarding the possibility of catastrophic failure and loss of life, when launching and touching down, a spacecraft experiences intense vibration and acceleration which may cause injury or illness in some less healthy individuals. And while in orbit, microgravity and radiation exposure pose a threat with unknown long-term effects.
NASA astronauts understand the risk they are taking when they launch themselves into space. They take that risk willingly and with informed consent. But a commercial passenger simply buying a ticket into space is unlikely to have the same understanding of those risks. Further, a private company does not have any real motivation to tell them. Although companies are required by United States law to inform spaceflight participants that the US government does not certify that spaceflight and space vehicles are safe for humans, there are no clear legal requirements for what companies must tell passengers beyond this. Companies are required to provide a list of the risks involved in writing, but this list is likely to appear as just one page in a stack of waivers most passengers may sign without reading.
It would seem logical to have strong legal guidelines governing private companies bringing civilian passengers into space, but unfortunately this is not the case. There is some law regarding human spaceflight from the US, but this applies only to space crew and is surprisingly hands-off regarding civilian non-crew members and space tourists. All space crew members must have a Class II Airman Medical Certification, which restricts individuals with medical conditions like diabetes from participating in space flight . In addition, all space crew must undergo a medical screening every 12 months by a licensed physician board-certified in aerospace medicine . Although these basic guidelines seem entirely sensible for anyone participating in space flight, they are not required for any civilian passenger. There are currently no legal criteria for civilian spacefarers. The FAA has released a report entitled “FAA Recommended Practices” regarding commercial spaceflight, but, as the title states, these are recommendations, not requirements. In a paper discussing space flight safety, Dr. Sara Langston says “Recommended practices do not constitute legal obligation, and unlike for crewmembers there are no professional board requirements or specific expertise legally required for the medical practitioners certifying [spaceflight participants] for spaceflight” .
Nothing is legally stopping a company from putting a 65-year-old man with a high risk for heart attacks on a rocket and launching him into space. This illuminates a glaring issue with the burgeoning private space industry: the lack of regulation. To effectively hold companies to responsible standards and ethical practices, it is crucial that a legitimate governing body be created to regulate commercial space flight. Specifically, regarding civilian spaceflight participants, there must be clear laws put in place to protect space travelers. Ethically mandated regulations should align with the practices of spaceflight companies, but unfortunately, this will not always be the case. Although most companies might act responsibly, extensive measures are necessary to mitigate the risk of spaceflight to consumers. Without oversight, companies do not have the incentive to go to the same lengths NASA does when sending astronauts into orbit. The FAA “Recommended Practices” makes some bare-minimum and rather mediocre suggestions for safety, but without a much more robust set of requirements, would-be commercial space passengers face dangers they are likely unaware of and certainly unprepared for.
There are currently only a handful of companies with publicly announced plans to offer passenger tickets for space flight, including Boeing, Blue Origin, SpaceX, XCOR, and Virgin Galactic. These companies plan to offer an array of different space trips, including sub-orbital flight (simply up and down to and from the same places), transcontinental suborbital flight for rapid transportation, and even interplanetary space travel. These flights are all still theoretical, but in 2018 SpaceX announced concrete plans to launch seven civilians on a return mission around the moon in 2023. Between the varying mission designs and the companies developing them, it will become increasingly difficult to assess the risk of each without an established authority overseeing all forms of civilian space flight. The expansion of this industry necessitates the implementation of both a robust ethical code and firmer laws and regulations.
In addition to the myriad of safety risks discussed above, there are also grave environmental concerns to be considered. Companies have indicated intentions to launch rockets as frequently as twice a day. This has the potential to critically damage the atmospheric composition and ozone layer: research indicates that a thousand private launches per year could significantly disrupt the distribution and circulation of ozone . A 2010 report cites simulations that suggest this may raise polar surface temperatures up to 1 and reduce polar ice caps by 5-15% . These effects are a direct result of black carbon, or soot, a byproduct of hybrid rocket fuels used in modern engines. This raises serious questions about whether it is ethical to further contribute to global climate change that damages our planet for the sake of a commercial, and in essence recreational, enterprise. The obvious answer is no, and this presents another task for a governing body of commercial spaceflight to undertake the management of environmental impact.
However, as we move into an era where private companies aim to launch several times a day, it may be that the risk involved in civilian spaceflight is effectively minimized by future innovations and development. If the industry can move forward practically, sustainably, and ethically, the possibilities for human advancement are thrilling. Dozens of successful commercial flights could result in public opinion embracing the idea of commercial space travel for civilians. This could be fantastic for the industry; increased attention, interest, and investment could catapult space technology forward to reach incredible new heights. However, if risk is handled poorly by hasty companies trying to make quick revenue, the consequences could be tragic for both passengers and the environment. Therefore, it is imperative that a governing body be put in place to deal with the inherent risks of space flight. With effective regulations in place, the space industry will be able to flourish and carry humankind closer to the stars than ever before.
By Brandon Dillon, Viterbi School of Engineering, University of Southern California
About the Author
At the time of writing this paper, Brandon Dillon was a junior at USC studying Astronautical Engineering.
 “14 CFR Subpart C – Second-Class Airman Medical Certificate.” Legal Information Institute. [Online]. Available: www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/part-67/subpart-C
 “14 CFR § 460.5 – Crew Qualifications and Training.” Legal Information Institute. [Online]. Available: www.law.cornell.edu/cfr/text/14/460.5.
 S. M. Langston, “Commercial space travel understanding the legal, ethical and medical implications for commercial spaceflight participants and crew,” 2017 8th International Conference on Recent Advances in Space Technologies (RAST), Istanbul, 2017, pp. 489-494, doi: 10.1109/RAST.2017.8002956.
 A. Mann. “Space Tourism to Accelerate Climate Change.” Nature News, 22 Oct. 2010. [Online]. Available: www.nature.com/news/2010/101022/full/news.2010.558.html#B1.
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