Commercial Space Transportation: Coming Attractions

Editorial, by Jon L. Jordan, MD, JD

Remember the science-fiction movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey, by director Stanley Kubrick? Platforms in space, tourist flights orbiting the Earth to the strains of Strauss waltzes...what seemed so incredible at the time (1968) is now only a few years distant.

Manned commercial space flight is a coming attraction, and the FAA Office of Aerospace Medicine will be very much involved in making it safe for adventurers to travel beyond the ozone layer.

Less than three years ago, the Federal Aviation Administration was delegated the responsibility of licensing all US commercial space launch activities to ensure they are conducted safely and responsibly. This oversight includes commercial launch sites, commercial launch vehicles, and the payloads launched aboard these vehicles. Within the FAA, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, AST, is tasked with carrying out this responsibility consistent with public health and safety, safety of property, and the national security and foreign policy interest of the United States.

Currently, all US commercial space launches involve unmanned flights to transport and deploy payloads that typically consist of communications satellites, remote sensing equipment, and scientific satellites. Therefore, the FAA's current scope of responsibilities is concerned only with the safety of people on the ground and those involved in aviation flights that share the same airspace. The agency has not yet had to confront the safety issues surrounding the transportation of humans into space as part of a commercial venture. However, this will soon change.

The establishment of the "X Prize Foundation" on May 18, 1996, is stimulating the development of commercial space tourism by offering a $10 million US cash prize to the first private team to build and fly (two consecutive flights) a reusable spaceship capable of carrying three individuals on a sub-orbital flight (100 km minimum altitude).

This international competition will promote the development of private, low-cost, reusable spaceships that will enable rapid intercontinental passenger and cargo transport, space tourism, and access to space resources. Sixteen teams from several nations have already registered for the X Prize Competition.

The introduction of the human element may significantly change the current scope of regulatory responsibilities concerning commercial space transportation and will require the Office of Aerospace Medicine to actively support the AST. We have established a taskforce to develop appropriate information, guidelines, and regulations, as indicated, to ensure the safety of crewmembers and passengers who will be involved in manned commercial aerospace flights. Areas for consideration include:

  • possible medical qualification standards and procedures for crewmembers and medical guidelines for passengers
  • training requirements for aerospace medical examiners, crewmembers, and other personnel (maintenance/service) that address the human factors/medical aspects of space travel
  • policies and procedures to protect personnel from occupational hazards
As exciting and feasible as it is, manned commercial aerospace travel will generate its own kind of medical and human factors problems that must be solved to protect the health and safety of space travelers. Everyday people someday soon will have the opportunity to take a commercial space flight.

Once these flights begin, there will be no turning back. A new transportation industry is likely to grow at an amazing pace, and we must be ready to help it launch � safely.