In December 2009, British billionaire Sir Richard Branson and Virgin Galactic unveiled a commercial passenger spacecraft to rocket wealthy tourists into space. The project marks a new beginning in the commercial era of space travel. As space tourism takes a huge leap towards reality, one serious issue that arises is whether the existing liability regime is ready to support the increase in outer space activity and the corresponding increased risk of liability.
There are generally two tiers to the existing regime. The first tier is comprised of international conventions which essentially hold “launching states” liable for damage for the loss of life, personal injury or loss of or damage to property. The second tier consists of state-based (or “country-based”) legislation aimed at allocating the risks between various participants. For example, the United States government has in recent years enacted a number of statutes aimed at defining the relationship between various “launch participants”. These statutes address topics such as waivers of liability, insurance, and indemnification for excess liability. However, the extent to and manner in which the legislation applies to space tourism is not clear.
In an effort to encourage human space flight, two American states – Virginia and Florida – have adopted legislation aimed at immunizing spacecraft operators from liability from claims by space flight participants. However, the effectiveness of these domestic statutes is questionable, given the international scope of space travel.
As Virgin Galactic inches closer toward the hope of taking tourism to new heights, there will be a need to develop legislation (and international conventions) to better define the liability framework for space travel. As the industry matures, these pieces of legislation and an international legal regime will likely ensure that an equitable balance is reached between the rights of passengers, spacecraft operators and governments.