The exploration of space has always allured mankind. With the constantly evolving and developing space laws, humans have gradually been able to harness unique aspects of this “new frontier’. The advent of privatization of space activities has opened the gates to a notion of enormous potential – space tourism. Space tourism refers to the set of commercial activities that offer consumers the experience of space travel, either directly or indirectly. It is categorized into three parts – suborbital, orbital, and lunar space tourism. Space tourism is a new-fangled anomaly that allows individuals to travel to space at their discretion, for personal leisure and pleasure.
This blog seeks to discuss the legal aspects of space. It will also highlight the progress of space tourism in the world so far, along with the prospects and potential of space tourism in India.
An overview of the development of space tourism
Space tourism is a reality, and the world has already witnessed seven individuals who paid to go to space for a vacation. Mankind’s tryst with the “new frontier” as a holiday destination began with Dennis Tito, who was the pioneer space tourist in 2001. Currently, space tourism is governed by relevant provisions of the Treaty on Principles Governing the Activities of States in the Exploration and Use of Outer Space, including the Moon and Other Celestial Bodies (“Outer Space Treaty”), the United Nations Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space (“UN COPUS”), the Convention on International Civil Aviation (“Chicago Convention”), etc.
Many private players have been endeavouring to enter the multimillion-dollar industry of space tourism to make holidays in space possible, profitable, and commercially viable. Space tourism has become the cause of another space race, however, this time between private players including Richard Branson and Chamath Palihapitiya’s Virgin Galactic, Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin, Michael Suffredini’s Axiom, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX. These companies are offering their deep-pocketed customers the taste of space to achieve their two-fold objectives – one, metamorphosing space travel into a burgeoning source of revenue, and two, conducting research simultaneously.
Apart from these private players, Russia is the only country to conduct orbital space tourism by Roscosmos, their space agency.
India’s venture into space tourism
India has a prominent role in the research on space. It duly recognizes space tourism as a massively lucrative business opportunity. Thus, India is set to make its debut into the space tourism industry within this decade.
The Indian Space Research Organization (“ISRO”) is pursuing work in full swing on Gaganyan, India’s primary manned mission to space. Gaganyan has the potential to grease the wheels for India to enter the space tourism market and open the avenues for mammoth commercial opportunities. K Sivan, Chairman of ISRO, also acknowledged this when he stated that ISRO is in the works to concoct the capacity for space tourism in India.
India’s endeavour with space tourism would have numerous positive effects, including the creation of employment and sizeable revenues and investments. However, where India is excelling at technology and low costs, it lags behind with respect to the express laws and legislations to govern outer space activities including space tourism.
Legal lacunae of tourism in the new frontier
Lack of Legislation
The primary legal issue with tourism in the new frontier is the lack of legality thereof. Space tourism is a unique venture, and thus, the legality of activities around the proliferation of individuals in space for recreation is yet to be formulated. Moreover, the current treaties relating to space are extremely outdated and fail to copiously deal with the legal challenges imposed by the space tourism industry.
With the space tourism industry inching closer to launch every day, there emerges a dire need to formulate laws and legislations that shall regulate issues of space tourism in India, including the regulation of private players. Since space tourism is a new industry, the role of the government includes a legal responsibility to authorize and supervise private activities in space, while ensuring that it gives the private sector enough levy to develop technologically and commercially and enhance their growth. The legislation thus created should address various issues such as the registration of the spacecraft, disclaimers and releases to be signed by participants, licensing of the crew, crimes committed by the space tourists, accidents in space, etc.
Legal Status of a Space Tourist
The next legal issue that arises is around the status of the space tourist. Before this notion of space tourism, the status of a space traveller had never been an issue, as the only people traveling to space were astronauts. Thus, no international space law document has defined space tourists, let alone elucidate on its legal status. However, with the contemporary augmentations in the space industry, it is imperative to define a space tourist, its legal position, its rights and liabilities, etc. There is extreme ambiguity whether space tourists fall within the ambit of astronauts, envoy of mankind, or personnel of a spacecraft, i.e., the terms used for space travellers in treaties and legislations.
However, the legal status of a space tourist could potentially have a substantial bearing on the rights and obligations of the traveller. For example, Article V of the Outer Space Treaty creates an obligation on States to assist astronauts in moments of agony and distress such as accidents, emergency landings, etc. The same is also laid down in the Agreement on the Rescue of Astronauts, the Return of Astronauts and the Return of Objects Launched into Outer Space (“Rescue Agreement”). However, these treaties are only applicable to astronauts, envoys of mankind, or personnel of a spacecraft. Since recreational space tourists do not fall in the realm of the treaties, they are not rendered with these rights and states have no obligation to assist them. Issues shall also arise with regards to the Convention on International Liability for Damage Caused by Space Objects (“Liability Convention”), wherein a space tourist cannot be implicated for damage to space objects or harm to other space travellers because they do not come within the realm of the convention. Thus, defining space tourist is cardinal to proceed with space tourism as it would lucidly state the activities within the domain of space tourism.
Another concern around the space tourists is passenger liability. In order to bring forth inclusiveness, equity, and fairness in space travel, it is imperative to widen the horizons of the Liability Convention. Presently, in accordance with the Liability Convention, only launching States have absolute liability for any damage due to space activities. However, with the advent of space tourism, the regulations relating to liability need to be reformed to make them proportional to the public and private space activities.
While on-board the spacecraft, the passenger liability is suggested to be in accordance with the two-tier liability system of the Convention for the Unification of Certain Rules for International Carriage by Air (“Montreal Convention”). Article XVII and Article XXI of the Convention state that on the instance of any injury or death of a passenger, the liability of the carrier is unlimited. The exception to this rule is if the damage was caused due to delay when the carrier has proved that it took all necessary measures in order to evade the damage. Further, according to Article VII, the international liability for any damage incurred by a space object is imposed on the launching State, regardless of the space object being a public or a private entity. A bare perusal of the space treaties makes it evident that these international treaties and conventions are bereft of the provisions to handle the liability of private entities in space, rather they are merely aimed at regulating the signatory states.
Space tourism also opens avenues to insurance companies. Space tourists purchase tickets of hefty amounts and also adorn the impending perils complementary to space travel, which leads to the emergence of a rare risk profile. Space insurance is an excruciatingly technical issue and requires expert knowledge of the launch vehicles, satellites, and other issues. However, the current regime for space insurance provides the insurance covers merely for the astronauts and personnel of a spacecraft and does not include any provisions of passenger liability for space tourists.
The issue of insurance was attempted to be resolved by Space Adventures – the company had purchased personal accident insurance for the safety and well-being of their consumers. With a sharp rise in prospects of space tourism, it imposes the insurance market with a challenge. The uncertainty around the legal status of a space tourist, the liability regime, and the regulations and legislations further create menace for the insurance market.
Another concern around space tourism is of authorization and registration. To send a vehicle to space, it is compulsory for the national and international space law to authorize it according to Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty. However, the national and international legislations and regulations are reticent on the subject of authorization of space travel with tourists aboard. Since international space law obligates states to authorize and regularly supervise their country’s space activities and the laws are silent on authorization and supervision of space flights with tourists, such space flights seem impossible. However, the United States has implemented certain regulations regarding the authorization of flights for space tourism.
Registration is another cardinal factor for a space object so that a State can wield its jurisdiction and control on the space object. Stringent policies are required from the international and national space laws to necessitate the registration of space objects carrying tourists as the laws are silent on this subject.
The world will soon witness space flights carrying tourists for commercial and recreational purposes. This also opens novel boulevards for travel fanatics with deep-pockets. Despite being so fascinating and lucrative, space tourism is restricted because of the paucity of legislation which further creates various dilemmas for the potential tourist and the entire world. At the same time, space tourism poses several challenges such as dubiety in the legal status of space tourists; issues of authorization and registration; matters about personal liability and insurance, etc. Due to the issues discussed and the rapid development in this sector, there is an urgent devoir for laws and legislation that are unambiguous and coherent.
Today, mankind stands on the brink of the fortuity to probe into space and harness the endless possibilities and fulfil its curiosity from the vast expanse surrounding us. With the emergence of appropriate and efficacious legislation, there is a vast potential that the space sector will witness avant-garde opportunities and endeavours with enhanced cooperation all over the globe.
This article has been authored by Samridhi Talwar, a student at University School of Law and Legal Studies, GGSIPU