The marketing of space tourism paints the image of space flights as safe.
Unfortunately the current reality is quite different.
Space flight comes with the real risk of death or personal injury. The in-flight astronaut fatality rate as of March 2021 was one death in 31 boardings or 3.2%. For comparison, the in-flight passenger fatality rate for commercial airlines between 2008 and 2017 was one death in 7.9 million boardings, which is an infinitesimally low percentage fatality rate. Also for comparison, between 2010 and 2018, the fatality rate for Mount Everest climbers was one death in 111 summit attempts, or .9%. For reference, other comparative fatality rates for different activities are shown in this info graphic.
To ensure that all space tourism customers know what they are getting into, the FAA requires that all space tourism businesses inform customers of the risks in writing. Further, before being allowed to fly, all customers are required to sign a legal document confirming that they understand and accept all the risks. This is called “informed consent”. In some ways, informed consent is very similar to the FDA warning labels on cigarettes…
To provide guidance for space tourism businesses regarding the compliance requirements for informed consent, the FAA has published a document titled “Guidance on Informing Crew and Space Flight Participants of Risk”. An overview of the key elements of informed consent are outlined below.
RISK OF LAUNCH AND REENTRY
Each space flight participant must be informed in writing about the risks of the launch and reentry, including the safety record of the launch or reentry vehicle type. This information must be presented in a manner that can be readily understood by a space flight participant with no specialized education or training, and must disclose in writing:
- For each mission, each known hazard and risk that could result in a serious injury, death, disability, or total or partial loss of physical and mental function;
- That there are hazards that are not known; and
- That participation in space flight may result in death, serious injury, or total or partial loss of physical or mental function.
Each space flight participant must be informed in writing of the following:
“The United States Government has not certified the launch vehicle and any reentry vehicle as safe for carrying flight crew or space flight participants.”
This non-certification statement explains to the space flight participant that the FAA’s licensing and permitting requirements are not intended to ensure occupant safety. The FAA is currently prohibited from regulating the safety of occupants, except in response to specific situations that resulted in occupant casualties or posed a high risk of causing casualties.
HUMAN SPACE FLIGHT SAFETY RECORD
Each space flight participant must be informed of the safety record of all launch or reentry vehicles that have carried one or more persons on board, including both U.S. government and private sector vehicles. This information must include:
- The total number of people who have been on a suborbital or orbital space flight and the total number of people who have died or been seriously injured on these flights; and
- The total number of launches and reentries conducted with people on board and the number of catastrophic failures of those launches and reentries.
VEHICLE SAFETY RECORD
Each space flight participant must be informed of the safety record of the vehicle. The vehicle’s safety record must cover launch and reentry accidents and human space flight incidents that occurred during and after vehicle verification was performed and include:
- The number of vehicle flights;
- The number of accidents and human space flight incidents; and
- Whether any corrective actions were taken to resolve these accidents and human space flight incidents.
REQUEST FOR ADDITIONAL INFORMATION ABOUT ACCIDENTS AND INCIDENTS
Space flight participants must be informed that he or she may request additional information regarding any accidents and human space flight incidents reported.
SPACE FLIGHT PARTICIPANT ORAL QUESTIONS
Before flight, each space flight participant must be provided an opportunity to ask questions orally to acquire a better understanding of the hazards and risks of the mission, and each space flight participant must then provide consent in writing to participate in a launch or reentry. The consent must:
- Identify the specific launch vehicle the consent covers;
- State that the space flight participant understands the risk, and his or her presence on board the launch vehicle is voluntary; and
- Be signed and dated by the space flight participant.
The FAA believes that an opportunity to ask questions allows a space flight participant a chance to get clarification on any information that may be confusing or unclear. In addition to receiving informed consent in writing from a space flight participant, this requirement serves as another ’cognizance test’ or affirmation that the space flight participant understands what he or she is getting into before embarking on a mission.
Some people might be disappointed that they can’t afford a ticket to fly into space. However, once those people come to appreciate the risks associated with early space tourism flights – they may look back with relief at having dodged a bullet!
While space flight is currently risky – the space tourism industry is very young and rapidly gaining experience. Over time the risks associated with space tourism flights will diminish. Further, less expensive and less risky methods of viewing earth from space may become available.