The UK is laying the groundwork for a commercial space transportation industry by opening a consultation on a site for a possible spaceport and looking across the Atlantic for guidance on how to regulate the nascent business of ferrying passengers to space.
A memorandum of understanding signed at Farnborough on Tuesday between the US Federal Aviation Administration, the UK Civil Aviation Authority and the UK Space Agency will see the parties share ideas about how to ensure operations are safe without keeping companies Earth-bound with excessive regulation.
The UK is looking to learn from best practice, which at this point means the FAA – which is the only safety authority yet to establish rules on so-called space tourism. As FAA associate administrator George Nield says it needed to take a different approach to space tourism than to aviation, by regulating operations rather than the equipment and treating the machines as experimental aircraft. “A certification regime would stifle commercial operators,” he said.
Operators like Virgin Galactic, which plans to begin suborbital tourism operations as early as end-2014, are not to be treated as “common carriers”. Rather, passengers will be advised of the hazards of spaceflight and have to waive any rights to sue the operator before flying.
Ultimately, says Nield, the development of suborbital point-to-point travel depends on allowing operators wide development freedom, as existed in the pioneering days of aviation, rather than restricting them to carefully defined routines and equipment as dictated by modern civil aviation regulations.
UK Space Agency chief David Parker stresses that no decisions had been taken as to whether or not a UK spaceport would enjoy any public subsidy. But in beginning to establish a regulatory programme and identifying eight remote locations with suitable weather and the potential to have a 3,000m-plus runway, the UK was making it possible for entrepreneurs to push forward with efforts to provide low-cost access to space from UK territory.
Aviation minister Robert Goodwill says the UK's goal is to command 10% of a global space business estimated to be worth some £400 billion ($686 billion) by 2030. Enabling more low-cost launches of small satellites – a UK industrial strength – was a key to that strategy, he says.