Sir Richard Branson’s audacious vision for commercial space flight is being realized, as his Virgin Galactic LLC fleet is aiming to begin launching civilians into space by the end of 2014. The commercial space program has captured the imaginations of hundreds of would-be “astronauts” as 10 percent more people have already signed up than have ever been to space. Branson and Virgin Galactic have billed space travel as a “priceless” experience for the civilian-turned-astronaut, while the actual dollar sum to reserve a seat aboard the eccentric billionaire’s space fleet is a hefty $250,000. The space-travel pioneer recently recorded a third successful test of their reusable space vessel and are moving rapidly towards getting the first commercial space travelers into orbit.
Remaining Hurtles to Clear
If Branson has his way, space tourism may one day be as commonplace as cross-continental airline flights. Given such a revolutionary idea, questions abound in the present over how far the government should go to regulate space tourism endeavors. Space travel presents countless hazards and the Federal Aviation Administration is seeking to establish regulations that will mitigate safety concerns, such as potentials collisions with other space craft. The FAA believes that Virgin’s commercial space craft should be held to the same rigid criteria that the likes of NASA faces. Congressional critics of the FAA’s overreach contend that the government’s intense scrutiny of the unprecedented venture will retard the rapid progress that private space travel companies, like Virgin Galactic, have made.
Regulatory Limbo: In-Orbit Safety
The FAA has already dealt with safety issues concerning the actual launching of space craft. A current combination of governmental and private insurance exists to deal with rocket launches gone awry and the FAA already has licenses and other standards that must be met before during liftoff can take place. Regulation standards become uncertain when the space craft actually reaches orbit, where satellites and space debris represent massive concerns. The government is at an impasse in reaching a balance between ensuring consumer safety and crippling an emerging industry with uncapped potential. The fact remains that it is difficult to codify regulations for an industry that has yet to produce data, given the absence of actual flights. Perhaps regulators, and galactic tourists alike are hoping that Virgin meets its self-proclaimed goal of a launch by the end of 2014. The current price tag is an impediment to most aspiring civilian astronauts, but if you were able, would you be willing to cast aside the risks of space travel in the name of an awe inspiring experience?