In 2010, President Barak Obama announced a new national space policy, which focused on encouraging and facilitating the growth of a U.S. commercial space sector. With NASA shifting gears, commercial space travel could be the next frontier for U.S. businesses.
Several companies already have big plans for 2013, according to a recent SPACE.com article. Space Exploration Technologies sent its unmanned Dragon capsule into space three times last year, including two supply delivery trips to the International Space Station. This year, the company will be testing a new capsule that will carry astronauts into space.
Space Exploration Technologies is one of several companies vying to secure NASA’s International Space Station crew transportation contract. Boeing is also looking to enter the latest “space race.” Bidding is slated to begin in the latter half of 2013, with the contract being awarded in 2014.
In addition to providing transportation to and from the International Space Station, companies are also exploring private space travel. While orbital commercial human spaceflight will likely not become a reality until at least 2015, several companies are close to offering suborbital trips during which the spacecraft leaves the earth’s atmosphere but does not enter its orbit. XCOR Aerospace and Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic both have tests flights scheduled in 2013.
Of course, these groundbreaking business opportunities are not without substantial risks. As a result, the commercial space industry is calling for additional laws to address space launch liability.
For instance, Spaceport America is urging lawmakers in New Mexico to pass legislation protecting spacecraft operators and suppliers from liability in the event of an accident. As the Associated Press reports, several states, including New Mexico, have laws in place exempting spacecraft operators from lawsuits by passengers who have been informed of the risks. Legislation is now being debated in New Mexico that would expand that exemption to companies supplying parts.
Of course, the enforceability of such waivers is not certain and will likely have to be tested in the courts. As with space travel itself, businesses will be entering unchartered territory.
If you have any questions about the legal issues related to commercial space travel or would like to discuss how your business may be able to take advantage of the opportunities in this industry, please contact me, Dan Brecher, or the Scarinci Hollenbeck attorney with whom you work.