June 2013 Bar Bulletin
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June 2013 Bar Bulletin

To Boldly Go: Space Tourism

By Matthew King


In October 2004, SpaceShipOne captured the $10-million X-Prize when it successfully launched a human into suborbital space1 twice within a two-week period. Since then, several private companies have been vying to be the first to regularly send tourists into suborbital space.

In response to the developing commercial space transportation industry, Congress has enacted laws that provide for optimum public safety, while also recognizing the incredible financial needs of the industry.

A short review of space travel's history is necessary to see exactly how the law evolved into its current state. Prior to the 1980s, there was no private space transportation industry. No U.S. laws existed regulating non-governmental space travel; rather a series of international treaties and compacts governed space activities.2

After the space shuttle Challenger tragedy in 1986, the government banned commercial payloads from the shuttle. This ban created a need for commercial space transportation separate and apart from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). As Europe's Arianespace commercial-launch consortium (founded in 1980) literally took off, U.S. efforts bogged down - not surprisingly - in administration and regulation.

Two years prior, Congress recognized that the potential commercial space transportation industry needed to be regulated and passed the Commercial Space Launch Act.3 In addition, Congress created the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) within the Department of Transportation (DOT).

However, a conflict arose between the regulatory powers of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the DOT's powers to regulate suborbital vehicles. This conflict led to stagnation and the commercial space launch industry found it difficult to navigate the regulations from two separate agencies.

In 1995, the OCST was renamed the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and was transferred to the FAA's jurisdiction. While this solved some of the conflicts, fighting between the FAA's Regulation and Certification Group and the AST continued. This struggle arose because most suborbital aircraft involve a takeoff and landing similar to an airplane, while also using rocket power to enter suborbital space.

To resolve this conflict, and to promote the commercial space tourism industry, Congress again stepped in, enacting the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (SLA). The SLA provides substantial protection for space tourism businesses.

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