In space, no one can hear you sue

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Wednesday, May 16, 2007

The Personal Spaceflight Federation — space tourism's trade group — wants its customers to enjoy the thrill of a lifetime: a joyride into suborbital space. But if something goes wrong, no lawyers allowed.

The Federation is currently advocating legislation to give space tourism companies immunity from being sued by the families of passengers injured or killed in accidents. One such piece of legislation is making its way through the Virginia State Legislature. The Federation would like to see similar legislation passed in other states in which commercial spaceports have been proposed, including California, Florida, Oklahoma, and Texas.

Spaceflight, the Federation argues, is inherently hazardous. That's certainly true. Rocketry pushes engineering to its limits. Even under the best circumstances, things can go wrong. NASA astronauts know that better than anyone.

It's also true that promoting a commercial spaceflight is a social good, because it creates jobs, wealth, and new technology. However, after a single accident, expensive litigation and massive payouts by juries could squash all but the largest space-tourism companies.

But on the other hand, isn't there a difference between risking lives to further human knowledge (as NASA does) and risking lives for fun and profit? Space tourism is a pretty cool idea, but it isn't exactly necessary. It's a luxury item. Exempting an entire industry from liability for errors that may cost the lives of passengers (or people on the ground) seems extreme. As space-tourism companies compete for passengers, what will keep them from bending the rules a bit to keep on schedule?

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