We’re getting closer and closer to the age of space tourism. Already, a number of companies such as Virgin Galactic are working to send paying customers to space, while others like SpaceX and Blue Origin are trying to massively reduce the cost of space travel by building reusable rockets.
And now the United Nations wants to help this emerging sector grow. Its aviation agency, the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), wants a unified set of "regulations" to be put in place within five years to allow space tourism companies to thrive, ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu told an aerospace symposium in Abu Dhabi today (Tuesday). This could include things like dictating when and where launches are allowed from, issues regarding flying over other countries, preventing an accumulation of space debris, and so on.
"If we do not find a way to meaningfully and pragmatically manage the important changes that aerospace innovators are generating, national requirements will not be harmonized, technology will be over- or under-regulated, and there will be more operational and commercial uncertainties,” Dr. Aliu explained in a statement sent to IFLScience. "This is exactly what needs to be avoided."
Widely adopted regulations are needed, the ICAO said, to ensure safety and security in space travel, rather than letting countries come up with their own patchwork of rules. At the moment, there is not really a unified set of rules governing space travel, something highlighted by Tanja Masson-Zwaan from the International Institute of Air and Space Law in the Netherlands and Steven Freeland from the School of Law in Australia in a paper published in 2010.
"Within the foreseeable future, space will no longer be the sole domain of professionally trained astronauts or the exceptionally wealthy," they wrote. "The lack of legal clarity represents a major challenge and must be addressed as soon as possible, to provide for appropriate standards and further encourage (not discourage) such activities."
SpaceX launched and landed a rocket for the first time in December 2015 (launch shown). SpaceX
The ICAO noted the growing number of companies in the field and the increasing number of developments as a reason for taking action now. These include plans to build space ports around the world, such as in Houston, Texas and in the U.K., while private rocket launches are now very much a regular occurrence. Suborbital flights via companies like Virgin Galactic are also not far off.
"Personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see the dream and theory of normalized space flight now becoming such a tangible reality," added Dr. Aliu.
The infamous Outer Space Treaty of 1967 is often dredged up in discussions like this, which says that no entity – private or national – may lay claim to any celestial body in space (although the legalities regarding things like asteroid mining are a bit more unclear). Aside from this, though, companies are by and large left to their own devices regarding their activities in space.
To support what is a hugely exciting industry, the UN are probably right. A unified, global set of rules similar to the aviation industry isn’t a bad idea, and could help companies know where they stand as progress continues to be made.