A new era of human spaceflight was launched when Axiom Space announced it is sending four private astronauts to the ISS early in 2022. The Axiom “Ax-1” mission will be the first purely commercial mission to the space station. SpaceX is also sending four civilians to earth orbit later in 2021. The SpaceX “Inspiration4” mission will be the first all- civilian mission to earth orbit. Furthermore, Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin are expected to start suborbital flights for space tourists in 2021. In addition to creating new opportunities for space travel, these missions create new challenges for space lawyers – representing the private astronauts who will spend around $250,000 for a suborbital flight or up to the $55 million estimated by industry sources for missions to the ISS.
Private Astronaut Mission providers (“PAM Providers”) like Axiom deliver essential services to private astronauts such as training, mission planning, life and medical support, on-orbit operations, and they manage the mission. PAM Providers contract with NASA (and perhaps Roscosmos) as well as a launch provider to secure to/from transportation and accommodations aboard the ISS.
PAM Providers contract with private astronauts for each mission. The contract terms and conditions address multifaceted state, national, and international laws. Key contract terms include basic contract provisions on price, scope of work, termination, force majeure events, refund conditions, and warranties. The interaction of insurance and cross-waivers of liability to risk management is critical to understand and articulate clearly.
Cross-waivers of liability may apply to training activities occurring in multiple states, as well as to national and international operations for launch, recovery and operations in space. Lawyers must also evaluate the ISS Crew Code of Conduct and its applications to private astronauts. The contract must also clarify how NASA’s commercialization policies interact with the ISS Intergovernmental Agreement, specify private astronaut duties on the ISS, and detail: sponsorship opportunities, rights to media, access to voice and video communications while on the ISS, and many other such issues. International law issues include the applicability of the Rescue and Return Agreement. The responsibilities and potential liabilities of the PAM Provider must be negotiated.
Finally, whether the contract and related agreements can be structured to provide any tax advantages must be evaluated.
The contracts related to space tourists are truly complex and will provide space lawyers representing space tourists with challenges for years to come.