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The so-called “space billionaires”—Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson and Elon Musk — imagine a day when people will live and work in space, gradually transforming humanity into a multi-planet species. The next step in that direction is the development of a space tourism industry, and that’s about to become a reality. The rich will go first, of course, paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to be astronauts — if only for a few minutes. These extreme-tourism-style flights by Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and SpaceX are seen as a precursor to an era when blasting to and from space will be considered as routine as flying from New York to Chicago. The preparation needed to make these civilian rides work is also crucial for the kind of point-to-point hypersonic flights that Musk and others have envisioned as a way to shrink travel times across the Earth.
Yet, when it comes to actual commercial spaceflight, these space trips will present a demanding environment for anyone who isn’t a fighter pilot or a real astronaut. Fleeing and re-entering the atmosphere is a dynamic, stressful experience, thanks to the forces of gravity and millions of pounds of thrust powering an ascent that reaches thousands of miles per hour.
For decades, human space flight has rested squarely in the government’s domain. Fewer than 600 people have escaped Earth’s grasp, almost all of them public employees. Membership in that exclusive club is poised to surge as entrepreneurs line up to create this new form of adventure ride: the ultimate roller coaster.
The U.S. government is giving the nascent industry wide latitude, in part to encourage commercial enterprise and also because there’s little stomach for funding a national space program. Congress has allowed companies to devise their own medical screening and training protocols by imposing a moratorium on space passenger regulation until 2023. The Federal Aviation Administration currently requires a license for non-governmental space flights to ensure they don’t pose a hazard to public safety. But the FAA doesn’t have authority over vehicle design or training—or who springs for a seat on these new space ventures. “It’s really up to the company for what kind of screening they want to have,” George Nield, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said Tuesday at the annual Space Commerce Conference in Houston.
If all goes as planned, the commercial space race will introduce scores of new “astronauts” each year: mostly middle-aged and older people with plenty of cash to burn—as well as run-of-the mill maladies that come with age. This situation, novel to space travel, has led researchers to probe the average person’s vulnerabilities in such an environment, contributing to a growing body of research about the stresses of rocket flight for those without a NASA-certified physique.
Does this mean space travellers with heart disease or diabetes, pacemakers or insulin pumps, or any chronic affliction that comes with old age could pass muster? Potentially, yes. The primary medical-screening issue, Vanderploeg said, is whether a flier’s condition is “well-understood and well-controlled” and the person is receiving the appropriate treatment.
There’s an economic imperative at work here, too. Holding passengers to the same standards as those that faced traditional astronauts may not result in many paying customers, a critical point when you consider the open question as to whether commercial space flight will ever turn a profit. Nevertheless, Virgin Galactic LLC takes a conservative view toward screening its customers, Vanderploeg said. The first 100 customers, which the company calls “founders,” have received extensive medical scrutiny ahead of the first space flights.