Space tourism has the potential to revolutionize space travel from many aspects. Heavy private investment has led to significant technological advancements. Moreover, it is likely to lead to greater inclusivity of persons flying to outer space while raising environmental consciousness.
From a legal perspective, there are many issues involved in space tourism flights. Below are some of them.
First, the delimitation of outer space is important, not only for the definition of ‘spaceflight’, but mainly regarding issues of exclusive national sovereignty in the airspace, as opposed to the freedom of use of outer space.
There are also issues regarding the safety of flights, e.g., licensing and potential certification of vehicles, and the organizations and physical persons involved, such as operators, personnel, maintenance providers, etc. Traffic management arrangements concerning other space objects and aircraft are also important.
In case of contingencies, problems of search and rescue and accident investigation will appear. This is partly related to the question of qualification of space tourists as ‘astronauts’, which triggers the applicability of the provisions of the 1969 Rescue Agreement. However, air law provisions might be able to provide for more appropriate solutions.
Passenger liability and product liability issues, and related insurance coverage, will almost certainly arise, as with all modes of transportation in their initial stages. The current regulatory model of informed consent releases operators and manufacturers from liability provided that spaceflight participants, i.e., passengers, have been informed of the extreme risks of spaceflight and have assumed the risk of flying. Whether this model will indeed shield from liability for accidents or provoke protracted litigation remains to be seen.
International jurisdiction and applicable law, especially for orbital flights and potential point-to-point suborbital flights, also need to be determined. Usually, this is resolved through registration of the vehicle so that jurisdiction rests with the State of registry, combined with contractual clauses on the choice of law and jurisdiction.
Furthermore, there are issues related to spaceports, ranging from planning to operations. Here too, the experience of air law could be useful.
In the future, when private commercial spaceflight becomes more frequent, international regulation will also be needed under the auspices of an international organization.
Overall, space tourism flights are connected to a series of legal questions, which current space law may not be able to answer. Using the experience of air law and combining technological with legal innovation is probably the way forward.