Introducing our new special guest editor, Philip Vukovic – BSc (Melb). Many thanks to Philip for this wonderful piece for anyone who is curious about ‘commercial spaceflight’, something that has been in the news a lot over the past year.
Are you wondering where you should go for your next big holiday? Well… deliberating on your next holiday destination may no longer be necessary as commercial spaceflight becomes more accessible to the public and places space on the list of future possible getaways!
What is commercial spaceflight and space tourism?
Commercial spaceflight involves the development or use of spaceflight technology that is conducted and paid for by an entity other than a government agency. Prior to the birth of commercial spaceflight, space programs were largely held back due to governments experiencing budget constraints. As such, the prosperity of commercial spaceflight is imperative for the continual exploration of space. A thriving commercial space industry will, among other things, make space tourism a possibility for the public, allowing humans to travel through space for recreational purposes.
The types of spaceflights
The two most common spaceflights are known as suborbital and orbital spaceflights. Suborbital spaceflight involves reaching space (typically considered to be an altitude of 100km as defined by the Kármán line), however, returns without orbiting the Earth. Orbital spaceflight on the other hand, does involve travelling around the Earth one or more times.
Recent events in commercial spaceflight
In 2020, SpaceX used its Crew Dragon capsule and Falcon 9 rocket to send humans into Earth orbit, becoming the first commercial company to deliver astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS) under contract to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA).
The company then went on in 2021 to carry out the first all-civilian low earth orbit spaceflight mission. The three-day flight completed by the Inspiration4 crew, consisting of four private individuals, helped raise money and awareness for the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tennessee.
Future all-civilian missions are also in plans by SpaceX such as the #dearMoon project. SpaceX plan to send the first all-civilian crew for a week-long journey to the moon and back in 2023. Yusaku Maezawa, a Japanese entrepreneur and art collector, purchased all seats aboard the rocket and detailed his plans to the world. The project aims to bring aboard 6-8 artists to develop an all-inspiring universal art exhibition that will be showcased on Earth.
Both Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezo’s Blue Origin also endeavoured to push the boundaries of commercial spaceflight by going to space themselves. Both suborbital flights were a success and will ultimately help pave the way for future commercial missions. Such commercial missions also provide inspiration for the next generation of space faring humans.
Floating in the environment of microgravity, an ecstatic Branson proclaimed, “To all you kids down there, I was once a child with a dream. Looking up to the stars. Now, I’m an adult in a spaceship with lots of other wonderful adults looking down to our beautiful, beautiful Earth. To the next generation of dreamers, if we can do this, just imagine what you can do.”
The risks associated with commercial spaceflight
Data from the United States’ Federal Aviation Administration shows that a total of 1160 Americans have undertaken orbital and suborbital spaceflights, with 927 people undertaking orbital flights and 233 undertaking suborbital flights. 17 people have lost their lives carrying out orbital flights, while 3 lives have been lost during suborbital flights.
This translates to a 1.75% chance of death associated with both orbital and suborbital spaceflight. Therefore, before we go off to the travel agency to book our next space holiday, we should be aware of the possible risks associated with commercial spaceflight in order to enhance crew safety and avoid disasters from occurring.
Commercial space companies will need to take many things into consideration to ensure the safety of passengers. Some of which are spacecraft design, the training of crew members and deciding whether highly trained astronauts will accompany civilians to ensure their safety. In an attempt to avoid burdening a nascent industry, commercial imperatives are currently well ahead of government regulation, leaving commercial operators to decide what training is required. for those going to space.
As there are no specific requirements, it is hard to say exactly what such space training may entail. However, it is quite likely that this may involve informed consent, emergency response and physiological familiarisation training. Passengers may be trained to withstand high G-forces by subjecting them to high levels of acceleration (“G”) in a centrifuge. They may also spend some time in an altitude chamber to simulate low atmospheric pressure and low oxygen levels.
Regulating commercial spaceflight
At present in the United States, commercial space launch and re-entry, whether carrying humans or just cargo, are regulated and licensed by the Department of Transportation, via the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). These functions are authorized by the Commercial Space Launch Act (P.L. 98-575), as amended (51 U.S.C. Chapter 509).
In order to avoid holding back the development of the commercial space industry, the FAA was initially prohibited from regulating the health and safety requirements of humans aboard commercial spacecraft until 2012. However, this prohibition of regulation has been revised multiple times and has most recently been extended to October 1, 2023.
As such, existing medical guidelines will need to be updated and followed for commercial spaceflight in order to ensure the safety and autonomy of passengers. The challenge will be in issuing medical recommendations for spaceflight that provide an acceptable standard of safety for passengers while also protecting their autonomy, and not overloading a rising industry with over-regulation.
The future of commercial spaceflight
With numerous advancements in the field of aerospace over the last decade, we are witnessing an age of transition. An age in which human spaceflight is becoming more accessible to the public. There is no doubt that further research, innovation, and protocols will be needed to ensure success. However, future missions and aerospace developments will continue to pave the way to a reliable, safe, and cost-effective means to explore space.
Further Reading and Information
Schroeder, G. S., Clark, J. C., Gallagher, M., & Pandya, S. (2021). Medical guidelines for suborbital commercial human spaceflight: A review. Acta Astronautica.
The ad astra vita project. (2021, November 18). Commercial Spaceflight: Risk and Reward. [Video]. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2sbJHQFrCkA
Virgin Galactic. (https://www.virgingalactic.com/)
Blue Origin (https://www.blueorigin.com/)
Data U.S. Human Space Flight Safety Record (https://www.faa.gov/space/licenses/human_spaceflight/media/HSF_Safety_Record_Data.pdf)
Commercial Human Spaceflight (https://crsreports.congress.gov/product/pdf/IF/IF11940)