There are clearly a wide array of potential experiences that are available to help an embryonic space tourism business in the U.S., ranging from parabolic flight, to high-altitude flight, to suborbital rides, and trips into orbit itself, in the very near term. The barriers to such experiences are not technical, nor are they financial, per se. They are primarily engendered by the existing federal regulatory and policy framework, at the FAA and NASA, which has evolved in the absence of any anticipation of space tourism as a significant, or even minor, area of commerce. Some of these issues can be mitigated or eliminated by changes in agency policies--others will likely require legislation by Congress.
To address the market problem, it would be useful if the government could spend even a tiny fraction of the amount of money that it is presently devoting to technology development to studies that might determine the degree to which our private sector will use the technology. There is a precedent for NASA funding such studies--the Commercial Space Transportation Studies (CSTS) performed several years ago. Unfortunately, NASA funded their traditional aerospace engineering contractors to perform these studies, rather than experienced market research firms. Should NASA choose to do a follow on to these studies, focused on the public space travel and entertainment market, and performed by professional market researchers, it could have benefits on the business prospects for new space transportation systems out of all proportion to the funds currently being expended on their traditional technology studies.
If, however, in spite of the CSTS precedent, it is decided that this is an inappropriate use of NASA resources, such studies might be instead funded by another agency. For example, the Departments of Commerce and Transportation, given their responsibilities, as stated in a 1994 White House National Space Transportation Policy for "identifying and promoting innovative types of arrangements between the U.S. government and the private sector," could encourage and nurture new industries. This could be done without Congressional action, well within the discretion of the respective department secretaries, but a specific appropriation or direction by the Congress could be helpful in spurring on such an activity.
As discussed in the section on regulatory issues, there are several areas of uncertainty in current FAA policy with regard to where space begins, who has jurisdiction over various activities, whether or not passenger vehicles will be treated differently than cargo vehicles, etc. Even less than known regulatory costs, investors abhor uncertainty as to what such costs will be. Clarification of this policy (preferably with an eye toward encouraging new markets, with a balanced approach to public safety) will be helpful in raising capital for the development of routine, low-cost reusable transportation systems.
It might be useful to revisit the area of regulation of aviation for non-transportation purposes in general, so as to allow commercial activities with unorthodox and non-certified aircraft, such as those described in this paper, or perhaps in Russian aircraft brought to the U.S. Clearly the "one size fits all" approach of the FAA is inhibiting innovation, and could be strangling a fledgling industry in the nest. The "innovation" in the Department of Transportation called for by the above-referenced federal space transportation policy might provide some guidance here.
A new regulatory category that recognizes and accepts higher-risk activities may provide more flexibility for the private sector to provide such experiences to the public domestically. It should be noted that prohibiting or overregulating them here will not prohibit or regulate them overseas. They will continue to be offered, even to American citizens who are being misguidedly "protected" by existing policy, in other countries--countries to whom the myriad benefits of these new technologies, industries and services will exclusively accrue, to our own nation's continuing detriment.
While the author doesn't necessarily endorse it, and there are potential problems with it, one interesting concept, proposed by Drs. Peter Diamandis and Patrick Collins, is to have a category of passenger known as a "qualified" or "accredited passenger," who would be provided with additional information on the risks, and would sign waivers. This has a precedent with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the concept of a "qualified investor," who can invest in private issues of stock in companies considered to be too risky for the public exchanges. Such a reevaluation of the current FAA regulatory structure could require federal legislation.
In conjunction with an easing of the regulations for parabolic flight, NASA could jump start this industry by putting their own weightless flights out to bid. This year's space launch initiative provides a very modest beginning in this direction. Such an action would demonstrate a seriousness of intent on its part to move toward privatization. To repeat: if we cannot privatize a relatively simple atmospheric activity that has been performed for forty years, in forty-year-old aircraft, we have no hope of privatizing a Space Shuttle or International Space Station, and we should recognize this reality from a policy standpoint, and not continue to fool ourselves about the prospects for such privatization.
With regard to taking passengers on the Shuttle, the space agency will have to make a fundamental choice. It can continue on, "business as usual," in a post-Cold-War world, or it can loosen the reins on near-earth space and set private enterprise to work on it instead, refocusing itself on the farther frontiers of the Moon, Mars and other bodies of the solar system. The history of the past two decades indicates that the former approach is a road to stagnation, and one that our nation, if it truly believes that the development of space is important, can no longer afford.
The Cold War has been over for a decade. The nation must retool its space policy to accommodate itself to that fact. By taking new approaches to space, and new ways of thinking about people in space, the experiences described in this paper offer us an opportunity to develop a policy that is more attuned to the traditional American values of free enterprise, entrepreneurship, and freedom, and to start using the high frontier to create not just public jobs, but wealth unimaginable.