Virgin Galactic space tourists could be grounded by FAA

Almost 700 people have paid $250K to go to space aboard Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, but until the FAA grants the company a commercial operator's licence, not even Sir Richard Branson himself could take to the skies.

Virgin Galactic says commercial spaceflights could start in 2014, but company still needs FAA approval

Virgin Galactic tweeted Friday that SpaceShipTwo was flying under rocket power and then tweeted that it had 'experienced an in-flight anomaly.' The tweet said more information would be forthcoming. (Clay Observatory for Virgina Galactic/Associated Press)

Nearly 700 people have already paid $250,000 for a ticket to ride Virgin Galactic's commercial spaceship, and the company is hoping this is the year that those space flights finally take off.

One potential glitch: the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has not granted Virgin Galactic a commercial operator's licence.

What’s more, the FAA has not laid out safety rules like those for airlines and their planes, and there are no plans to do so until at least October 2015.

"We have to have an operator's licence to take people into space, and it's obviously something that we need to deal with," says Stephen Attenborough, the company's commercial director.

Known as a Reusable Launch Vehicle Mission Licence, this little document is the final piece of the commercial space travel puzzle that Virgin Galactic began assembling in 2004. 

Without it, only test-flight personnel like former astronauts and military pilots can fly aboard SpaceShipTwo, the most recent evolution of the company's supersonic craft.

"It's one of our remaining major milestones. We will be the first, I hope, commercial operator to receive one of these licences for human space flight," Attenborough says.

Even the company's billionaire owner, Sir Richard Branson, who has said publicly that he and his two adult children will be passengers on the first public flight, cannot legally fly in SpaceShipTwo until the licence is obtained.

Avoiding a 'Titanic-like' scenario

Virgin Galactic submitted an application to the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation in late August 2013, says Attenborough.

The office, which goes by the acronym AST, has six months to review the application, meaning an approval may come as early as February.

Industry experts, however, say that may be an overly optimistic projection.

"An application will inevitably be approved, but it definitely remains uncertain exactly when it will happen," says Dirk Gibson, an associate professor of communication at the University of New Mexico and author of multiple books on space tourism.

"This is extremely dangerous and unchartered territory. It's space travel. AST has to be very prudent," he says.

Sir Richard Branson, the billionaire daredevil owner of Virgin Group, has funded pioneering developments in commercial space flight since 2004. He has said that he will be aboard the first public flight his company takes into space, along with his two adult children. (Jae C. Hong/Associated Press)

"They don't want to endanger the space-farers or the public, and they can't let the industry get started and then have a Titanic-like scenario that puts an end to it all in the eyes of the public."

The AST decision will set a historical precedent for the handful of other companies – such as XCOR Aerospace, SpaceX and Blue Origin – that are also developing their own manned space vehicles, Gibson says.

"I would be very surprised if anyone flies this year. At earliest, we are probably talking about sometime later in 2015."

10 years in the making

Legislation directly addressing commercial spaceflights was first tabled in 2004, the same year AST's mandate was expanded to include privately financed manned missions.

Shortly after, the U.S. Congress ordered AST to suspend the usual safety requirements for companies building spaceships until 2012 to help the industry get started.

The move was part of an effort to nurture the nascent industry and limit regulatory interference, says Frans von der Dunk, a professor of space law at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

The suspension was subsequently extended to October 2015, when it became clear that progress in private space travel was proving more difficult than originally assumed.

It really comes down to two words: informed consent. AST will likely say to a company like Virgin Galactic, 'if you let people know to the best of your current knowledge what the risks are, then it is their decision to make and that's fine with us',- Dirk Gibson, professor and author of multiple books on space tourism- Dirk Gibson, professor and author of multiple books on space tourism

But this means that if Virgin Galactic does indeed get their commercial operator’s licence this year, the flights could take place without the kind of safety rules that go into more conventional forms of air travel. 

"When the rules were being written back in 2004, the FAA presumed there would be thousands of manned test flights already occurring by 2012 from which they could draw data and author regulations that protect the public and the people going into space," says von der Dunk.

To date, Virgin Galactic has successfully completed only three rocket-powered test flights with a single pilot aboard SpaceShipTwo. During the most recent flight on Jan. 10, the spacecraft reached 21,640 metres (70,997 feet) and fired its rockets for 20 seconds.

Paying customers, however, will fly at a maximum altitude of 110,000 m (360892 ft) and the rockets will need to fire for one minute before a parabolic free fall back to Earth.

"Now the FAA has found itself in a nearly impossible situation: they have a mandate to protect the public, but also a duty to promote the growth of the industry," says von der Dunk.

"They need to inform people about the risks they are taking, but how on Earth can you do that without more data?"

Informed consent

Gibson is quick to point out that it is not improbable that AST will grant Virgin Galactic an operator's licence even before it is required to have its spacecrafts approved for safety under federal standards; or before there is more data to judge how safe commercial space travel truly is.

"It really comes down to two words: informed consent. AST will likely say to a company like Virgin Galactic, 'if you let people know to the best of your current knowledge what the risks are, then it is their decision to make and that's fine with us'," he says.

SpaceShipTwo will be carried to over 15,000 m (49,212 ft) altitude by its 'mothership,' WhiteKnightTwo, before it releases and rockets take the spacecraft supersonic. (Virgin Galactic/Mark Greenberg/Associated Press )

"That will go on until there is some sort of catastrophic accident — and there will undoubtedly be an accident — and then the regulators will update what information companies must provide to the public before takeoff."

The FAA classifies 18 as the age at which a person can reasonably be expected to give informed consent.

So would-be space travellers like 11-year-old like Zainab Azim from Milton, Ont., who recently received a ticket from her father as a gift, will have to wait to float weightlessly aboard SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic 'very confident'

Attenborough says Virgin Galactic is "very confident the approval will come within the next few months" at the latest, but admits that a "degree of prudence and conservatism" is required in the process due to the inherent dangers of space travel.

"We have been working very closely with the FAA through each stage of the development process, and it was late in that process that we were able to put in the licence application," he says.

"If that licence doesn't come when we anticipate, then we will not be able to fly. Of course, if we fail to get the licence, there will be a reason and we will address that reason and keep moving forward."

In an email statement to CBC News, the FAA declined to comment on the specifics of the application but wrote that "a decision will be made when the review process is complete."


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