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Know before you fly: privatized space travel

| Tuesday, February 21, 2017

On Sunday, a rocket blasted off from a NASA launch pad and headed for the International Space Station. But the rocket wasn’t built by NASA.

The rocket, named Falcon 9, is owned by the private company SpaceX. Founded in 2002 by high-profile businessman Elon Musk, SpaceX “designs, manufactures and launches advanced rockets and spacecraft … with the ultimate goal of enabling people to live on other planets.”

That might sound like a faraway pipe dream. But with hundreds of billions of dollars to play with, Musk may be able to get it done sooner than you’d think.

As a company that intends to profit from sending people to space, SpaceX is trying to build and manage rockets as cheaply as possible. They’ve already managed to cut manufacturing and transportation costs enough that they can engineer rockets for a third of the price NASA can. Now, Musk and his team are trying to develop ways to reuse rockets after they have been launched. This will save them billions in manufacturing, and it’s something no government organization is currently doing.

The Sunday launch is part of this goal, as the Falcon 9 rocket carried the Dragon space craft (also made and owned by SpaceX) into low orbit and then successfully returned to its landing site. The Dragon will continue on to make its delivery at the International Space Station, and the Falcon 9 will be made ready for its next launch. It’s a cycle SpaceX has done before and will do again, perfecting their reuse and recycle technique and getting one more step ahead of NASA.

The idea that space travel will be driven by the private sector is perhaps not surprising, as government agencies (like NASA) are non-profit and not likely to be in the business of setting up spa resorts on Mars. However, the legal standing of private companies in space is murky, the ethics of exploring space for private gain is questionable and like any capitalistic system, some government oversight is necessary. These issues are addressed on Earth through legal policies — but in space, the law is a little less firm.

The most important legal force beyond the atmosphere is the 1967 Outer Space Treaty. It set up a number of fundamental regulations to govern the use of space — for example, that space and celestial bodies cannot be claimed by any one country, and must be free for exploration by all. With respect to private companies, the treaty had two things to say: first, that governments are still responsible for those companies’ activities, and second, that private companies are required to receive authorization and constant supervision from their government.

That holds Space X responsible to the U.S. federal government — but what exactly does that responsibility include? Let’s say Space X gets their tourism ships up and running, and then sets up a resort on Mars (it’s not far-fetched — Elon Musk says his ultimate goal for SpaceX is a Martian colony). Then there’s an accident and something explodes, damaging the surface of the planet. This damage violates the Outer Space Treaty, which stipulates that no harm is to be done to celestial bodies by space exploration. So who pays up? Space X, because they owned the resort, or the U.S. federal government, because according to the treaty they’re responsible for the company’s actions in space? Who enforces that decision? Since the treaty also stipulates that celestial bodies cannot be owned by anyone, who do they pay damages to, and who carries out the remediation? More generally, does building the resort — or colony, or laboratory, or space station — itself violate the treaty, as it implies some type of ownership of that part of the planet? Does the U.S. building a colony on Mars impede Britain’s freedom to explore Mars, and is that in violation of the treaty as well? If that’s the case, Musk can build all the reusable rockets he wants — legally, he’s not getting off the ground.

The legal issues are complicated, and while they aren’t going anywhere, SpaceX is. Elon Musk purportedly plans to send crewed crafts to the International Space Station in 2018, and wants to get a spaceship on its way to Mars in 10 to 15 years. Whether or not he’ll have the legal standing to do so has yet to be seen. So if you’re planning a trip to Mars, you might have to wait — once these private companies overcome the engineering challenges, they will have to start fighting the legal ones.

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.

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