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Image: Richard Branson
Don Emmert  /  AFP - Getty Images
Sir Richard Branson giving a thumbs up from a seat during the unveiling of a scale model of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShip2 in New York.
By Space Writer
updated 2/1/2007 12:37:31 PM ET 2007-02-01T17:37:31

The budding personal space travel industry anticipates progress on a number of fronts in 2007, including favorable U.S. regulatory decisions, the availability of affordable insurance, new spaceport developments and increased testing of new spaceship designs.

While noting the progress 2007 is expected to bring, the head of the newly formed Personal Spaceflight Federation says the industry is still at the starting gate.

“We’re still in the developing capabilities phase,” said Bretton Alexander, vice president of corporate and external affairs at Transformational Space Corp. and the first president of Washington-based PSF.

PSF is an industry alliance of more than a dozen businesses and organizations engaged in commercial human spaceflight. The organization was created to address regulatory, legislative and policy issues facing the industry, Alexander said.

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PSF members include spaceship developers and operators, spaceports, space destination and transportation agents. The list of companies involved in the industry include Bigelow Aerospace, a manufacturer of expandable spacecraft, as well as rocket and spacecraft developers such as Space Exploration Technologies, SpaceDev, Rocketplane-Kistler and XCOR Aerospace.

Within the next few months the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is expected to issue its final rules for the licenses that commercial suborbital spacecraft owners will need in order to conduct checkout and flight verification missions.

One part of the FAA rulemaking is designed to protect the safety of members of the public who are not involved in private space travel operations. Another part of the new rulemaking will contain regulations designed to ensure that passengers — called “Space Flight Participants” in FAA documents—are able to make informed decisions about their personal safety before boarding private spaceliners.

Insurance and liability
Slideshow: Month in Space: January 2014 John Gedmark, PSF’s executive director, foresees continued research and development activity on a number of vehicles and spaceports throughout the year.

“We anticipate these activities will lead to vigorous flight testing in the following year, with the first commercial suborbital passenger flights taking place in 2009,” Gedmark said.

But Alexander said there would be important areas that are not addressed in the new FAA regulations, particularly issues of insurance and liability.

“That’s where the industry and particularly the federation are going to spend a lot of its efforts. We want to make sure insurance is available, that it’s affordable and that [the industry] can withstand an accident — that is likely to happen sometime in the first few years of this activity,” Alexander told Space News.

One issue still to be worked out is a standard cross waiver of liability, Alexander said. Cross waivers of liability such as those that exist for expendable launch vehicle missions and space shuttle and space station activities provide some protection from lawsuits to companies and individuals involved in the specified activity.

The PSF also is focused on getting the FAA to come up with a workable definition of “informed consent,” that will apply to future commercial space passengers who will be asked to sign liability waivers acknowledging the risks involved in commercial spaceflight, Alexander said. “You’ve got to regulate for safety, but you must get informed consent from passengers. What is the standard for informed?”

Momentum and the legitimacy
“If 2007 can build on the momentum from the end of 2006, the space tourism industry will be in great shape,” said William Pomerantz, director of space projects for the X Prize Foundation, of Santa Monica, Calif.

Pomerantz pointed to the Nov. 13 flight of Blue Origin’s unpiloted Goddard vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, the beginning of a project to develop passenger-carrying suborbital space ships. Blue Origin is backed by billionaire Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon.com. Goddard made this first test flight from Blue Origin’s privately owned West Texas space launch site. More test flights are scheduled to take place in 2007 as the company refines its designs for the New Shepard, a vehicle that will be designed to take commercial passengers on flights into suborbital space.

Another milestone is expected in October when the Wirefly X Prize Cup will be staged again in Las Cruces, N.M., showcasing the evolution of numerous private space rocket ventures, Pomerantz said. “All of this is adding to the momentum and the legitimacy of the space tourism industry.”

Meanwhile, phased work on New Mexico’s Spaceport America has started. The New Mexico spaceport is scheduled to be the world headquarters for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic suborbital spaceline. Current plans are to locate it 18.6 kilometers east of Truth or Consequences, N.M., and 30 kilometers north of Las Cruces.

A major step toward its construction took place Dec. 21 when the New Mexico Spaceport Authority secured long-term access to 72.8 square kilometers. Legal agreements were signed with the State Land Office, Sierra County, and two private ranch operations.

The voters of Dona Ana County in southern New Mexico will go to the polls April 3 to vote for a gross receipts tax that will be used to fund infrastructure for Spaceport America and a math and science education program in the county school system.

“This is an important vote, because the credibility and viability of New Mexico’s spaceport, Virgin Galactic and the new space industry will be on the line,” said Rick Homans, chairman of the New Mexico Spaceport Authority and the state’s cabinet secretary of economic development.

Homans told Space News the tax will generate about $6.8 million each year, for 20 years. “Surrounding the election there will be a lot of questions asked and answered, and a positive vote will say a lot about the commitment in New Mexico to the bold and innovative goal to build the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport,” Homans said.

Rocket City
Spaceport America also will be the site for UP Aerospace’s return to flight following the Sept. 25 mishap that led to the crash of its SpaceLoft XL suborbital rocket. In the inaugural flight for the spaceport, the SpaceLoft XL rocket dove into the remote desert after 90 seconds of flight, destroying customer payloads.

UP Aerospace, with its primary business office in Highlands Ranch, Colo., is developing the SpaceLoft XL to carry scientific, educational and entrepreneurial payloads into suborbital space. The firm now is targeting its next launch from the site in April if it wins FAA approval for another launch. UP Aerospace also is working on a multiyear lease agreement with New Mexico Spaceport America officials.

Starchaser Industries of the United Kingdom also is eyeing New Mexico as a center for its operations. The group intends to open the first phase of its New Mexico-based Starchaser Rocket City resort in 2007, said Steven Bennett, chief executive officer of the rocket company.

Starchaser is developing the Thunderstar, passenger-carrying space ship. Bennett said that flights aboard the Thunderstar/Starchaser 5 rocket vehicles could take place from Spaceport America as early as 2009.

According to Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, 2007 is the “bridge year” for private human spaceflight — from business plans to start up to bending metal to firm and projected dates for initial operations.

“By year’s end, I expect a substantially increased number of tests and experimentally permitted flights on the path to piloted flights in the foreseeable future,” Smith said.

“The vital ingredient in all this is scrupulous adherence to the safest possible operations,” she said. Smith said safety is the goal that all agree is imperative. “To the extent that all parties accept no substitutes for safety, private human spaceflight will grow in public acceptance and esteem to a point in time when it will be a routine form of transportation. That’s why testing is vital, and that’s why I expect to see more of it in 2007,” she concluded.

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