Do space tourists really understand the risk they’re taking?

Who makes sure space tourists get back safe? Space tourism industry representatives argue that stringent safety oversight would hamper the companies’ ability to innovate.

Space tourism vehicles just might be the only transportation technology out there with the potential to kill humans that doesn’t need to undergo independent safety certification. For now, aspiring space travelers seem okay with that, but is the fledgling industry playing a dangerous game?

The four private astronauts of SpaceX’s Inspiration4 mission — the first-ever all-civilian flight to orbit — seemed relaxed a day before their Sept. 15 launch as they pondered the prospect of blasting off into nothingness sealed inside a space capsule, atop a rocket filled with explosive fuel.

Jared Isaacman, the tech entrepreneur who funded the mission and also served as its commander, claimed the crew was probably at a higher risk of an accident during the fighter jet flights they had taken during their training

“Over the past couple of days, we’ve been tearing up the sky in fighter jets, which I put at a relatively higher risk than this mission,” Isaacman said. “So we are nice and comfortable as we get strapped into [the Dragon Crew capsule].”

How dangerous are rocket flights?
But how high exactly is the risk of dying during a space mission? Phil McAlister, director of commercial spaceflight for NASA, told the NBC’s Today show(opens in new tab) on Sept. 15 that a ride on SpaceX’s Crew Dragon capsule is about three times safer than a ride on NASA’s space shuttle was in the final years of its operation, a time when shuttle flights were at their safest due to increases in inspections and awareness.

“We were able to incorporate some additional technologies. The Dragon system has an abort capability that we didn’t have,” McAlister told the Today show. “That has all increased the likelihood that you will have a successful mission.”

But what exactly does that mean? Teri Hamlin, the technical lead of space shuttle probabilistic risk assessment at NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston, told National Public Radio(opens in new tab) in 2011 that, in the early days, the risk of a space shuttle flight ending in a disaster was a scary 1-in-9 flights.

By the time the shuttle retired in 2011, the fleet having lost two of its vehicles in catastrophic accidents, the risk had dropped tenfold, to about 1in 90. If that number and McAlister’s extrapolation are correct, the probability of a catastrophic failure on Inspiration4 were about 1-in-300. (In practice, NASA suffered two fatal accidents in 135 shuttle flights, with the 1986 Challenger accident and 2003 Columbia tragedy killing seven astronauts each.)

Compare that with the 1-in-205,552 lifetime risk of an average American dying in an aircraft accident, according to data from the National Safety Council. On the other hand, the lifetime risk of dying in a car accident in the U.S. is 1 in 107, according to the same source.

Yet many experts warn that something unprecedented is going on in the space tourism industry that might increase the odds of aspiring space tourists dying in a crash.

Accountable to no one

“The problem is that the current space tourism industry neither has government [safety] regulation nor their own regulation,” Tommaso Sgobba, executive director at the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) and former head of flight safety at the European Space Agency (ESA), told Space.com. “Neither do they have any historical record to prove that their technology is safe.”

No modern appliance or device — from hair dryers and microwaves to cars, aircraft and rollercoasters — can enter the market without first receiving a certification from an independent body that its design meets independently set safety standards. These certifications are there to ensure that effort has been made to minimize the risk that these technologies will injure their users and that someone independent from the company thinks they are safe.

But a U.S. Congress moratorium(opens in new tab) on safety regulations established in 2004 means that space tourism companies are less accountable than you might think. 

“The moratorium was put in place to let the industry learn and progress following some very successful lobbying from the industry,” Josef Koller, systems director at the center for space policy and strategy at The Aerospace Corporation, told Space.com. “The law specifies that emphasis should be placed on developing best practices and voluntary standards that could eventually lead to the implementation of regulation. But so far there is not much to go around really.”

Currently, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires commercial space companies to demonstrate that their operations present no risk to the public on the ground (or in the air space). The agency, however, has no oversight over the safety of the flight participants, nor does it certify the launch and entry vehicles as safe for humans, an FAA spokesperson told Space.com in an email. 

“Under federal law, the FAA’s commercial space transportation oversight responsibilities are designed to protect the safety of the public on the ground and other members of the public using the national airspace system — not the individuals in the space vehicle,” Steve Kulm, FAA public affairs specialist, said in the email. “In fact, Congress has prohibited the FAA from regulating the safety of the crew or spaceflight participants. Further, Congress has not authorized the FAA to certify the launch or reentry vehicle as safe for carrying humans.”

Companies, however, have to prove that their technology worked safely during a test flight to gain FAA license approval to carry humans, Kulm added. 

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