Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Risky space tourism gets a boost from a hands-off FAA

By Robert Davis, USA TODAY
MEMPHIS — In the latest space race — to lift paying customers out of Earth's atmosphere — aviation safety regulators occupy a new niche: They are promoting an industry expected to suffer deadly accidents instead of applying strict safety rules.
Federal Aviation Administration officials detailed their unique relationship with the emerging space-tourism industry for a gathering of air and space lawyers this month.
Several firms are racing to serve people willing to pay a steep price for the privilege of floating briefly in space, perhaps in as little as two years. Some scientists believe commercial competition will fuel rapid development of space travel technology.
In the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, Congress told the FAA to treat the industry more like an adventure business than an air carrier. The law protects the rights of those who wish to be among the first private citizens to go into space — likening them to visionaries and adventurers who knowingly take other risks like climbing mountains — while giving the people who operate the new types of unproven spacecraft the scientific latitude to learn from their first fatal mistakes.
"This is an ultra-hazardous business," Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation told attendees at an American Bar Association forum on air and space law. She said part of the agency's effort to promote the industry's success means giving it room to fail.
By law, the FAA cannot impose safety regulations on the industry until 2012 unless there is a serious accident in flight or if the agency — which will attend every launch and is working closely with industry professionals — detects a safety threat that companies refuse to fix.
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