Vacation Among The Stars; The Ultimate Joyride For The Rich & The Legal Conundrum That Follows




If you have the faintest idea about Star Trek, you will be familiar with the saying ‘Space…. the Final Frontier’. Even if you are not a fan of films based on science fiction, you will agree that space is indeed the final frontier for humanity. The human mind is very fascinating, one might think there is some innate curiosity hardwired in the human mind which obliges us to explore uncharted territories with great intensity. In the 21st Century, after having explored all nooks and corners of the Earth (not really, since 70% of the ocean is still left unexplored and humanity needed a new toy to play with), what better thing to do than to explore space which is filled with riddles and mysteries. In reality, the saying has a much deeper meaning than intended, which might be relooked as, ‘Space…the Final Frontier for people with pockets deep enough’, since that is the state of space tourism at the moment. In recent years, Bezos’ aerospace company ‘Blue Origin’ and its rival competitor ‘Virgin Galactic’ founded by Richard Branson have been successfully launching rich civilians on a joyride beyond Earth’s atmosphere to satiate their dreams and/or alleviate their boredom (the qualifying word being ‘rich’ in this statement). Although the official prices for this joyride have not been disclosed by Blue Origin, it was reported that Virgin Galactic currently charges a whopping $450,000 per person on its VSS Unity space plane. Au contraire, us normal folks have to compare prices and navigate through suspicious websites in hopes of finding a discount code, just to buy cheap flights to Goa, which makes one wonder if there might be a discount code on travel websites when booking space tickets on VSS Unity space flight.

Let us for a second, just ignore the fact that space joyrides are an exclusive luxury, presently accessible only to rich or the chosen and look at the legality behind this joyride. While the rich are mesmerized by our beautiful floating rock in the middle of nowhere through their glass windows of the spaceship; the lawyers, legislators and regulators on the rock’s surface are grappling with the legal conundrums attributable to these joyrides. Given the risks and dangers associated with these joyrides, it is only natural that each passenger is required to sign waivers which acknowledge that that there is a possibility that they might sustain some form of injury or ultimately meet their almighty creator, for which they are waiving away their right to sue these companies. For the laymen who are not acquainted with legal jargons, these ‘waivers’ are just documents which say ‘Yes, I understand that I am launching myself in a metal bird propelled by a controlled explosion which has a chance of injuring or killing me, but I am okay with it’. The process is quite simple at the moment, you ignore the text of the document and just sign the dotted lines like how you would sign your blank cheques.

Now that you have signed the waiver and taken off on this joyride, the next question is what happens when you sustain an injury while you float outside Earth’s atmosphere and want to take legal action? The Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (Treaty) to which 115 countries are currently party to, came into force 2 years before the first man even landed on the moon which clearly indicates it is as old as the Methuselah star (the oldest star in the universe for those unaware). The Treaty is a collaborative effort to regulate outer space and laid down some very important principles such as: (i) outer space shall be used for peaceful purposes only (so no intergalactic conquests allowed like in Star Wars); (ii) every nation is free to explore space; (iii) no one can claim sovereignty over space; (iv) avoid harmful contamination of space; and that (v) nations are liable for any damage caused by their space activities to other nations. However, the Treaty offers near zero guidance on commercial and private space exploration as well as space tourism. This begs the question, who do you sue if you suffer an injury on your private adventure in outer space? For example, in the US, will the Federal Aviation Administration adjudicate your grievances, or do you appeal to an intergalactic space tribunal (yet to be established)? Quite a legal ‘black hole’, one might think. Let us not even get into the environmental concerns and space traffic control issues, which is an issue to be discussed in detail another time.

As technology advances and these intergalactic joyrides become more frequent and extravagant, the profitability for private aerospace companies like Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX will grow simultaneously. As they continue to propel humans among the stars, they are simultaneously propelling lawmakers into a new age of legal and regulatory challenges. It will be interesting to see how lawmakers around the world try to tackle the legality of space tourism soon, and one can only hope that these cosmic joyrides do not conclude their journey inside a court of law. So next time you consider booking your space tickets, just know that there are policymakers out there scrambling their heads to keep up with you.


Authors: Amartya Mody & Shaanal Shah




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