Virgin and Scaled Composites are proposing to offer space trips for money. Should early adventurers be protected, and if so, how much?

In retrospect - given the personalities involved - no one should have been surprised, but Virgin Galactic staged a successful ambush all the same. Just as commercial leisure flights into space begin to look plausible, Virgin Atlantic's Sir Richard Branson has decided he is going to be one of its pioneers. With his personal love for all things aeronautical, his instinct for the adventurous and his nose for a public relations main chance, Branson sprang his new venture on an unsuspecting public, unprepared industry and unready regulators.

The venture's launch was classic Branson. To provide gravitas for his zero-gravity product, he hijacked the Royal Aeronautical Society in London. The venture's brand name, plus its logo - straight out of a Batman comic - and finally the name of his proposed first suborbital passenger vehicle - VSS Enterprise - demonstrate that unerring instinct for self-mocking kitsch that wins Virgin devotees every time. Add an eccentric aviation legend like Burt Rutan to the mix, and the cocktail presented to the press was a heady one.

Maybe that's the problem. It's so heady the participants could get high on it. At the Virgin Galactic launch Burt Rutan said - ambiguously and with more than a touch of hyperbole - that since Branson had joined him to market his suborbital spaceflight journeys as the ultimate in cool trips, he has been unable to sleep at night. But for all the scepticism generated in the British press - launching in the UK was a risk in that respect - and the cautions from aeronautical commentators, a pair like Branson and Rutan could be what it takes to blast commercial space travel through the still considerable technical and legal barriers that exist as naturally as gravity does.

SpaceShipOne, the product of Rutan's Scaled Composites, has completed two suborbital trips so far, with the most recent last week. The bad news is that both times the craft has been dogged by instability at different stages after its release from the mother ship at 50,000ft (15,250m) during its rocket-powered parabolic flight to more than 100km above the Earth, and the reasons for the problem are not yet fully understood. The good news is that, both times, SpaceShipOne and its pilot have demonstrated the ruggedness to recover without any dangerous loads having been exerted on the airframe or its occupant.

The latter is reassuring. If nothing goes wrong with a test vehicle, no-one knows for sure how it would handle if something did. But the programme has a long way to go before Virgin Galactic will be allowed to, or even feel able to, take money from passengers for the experience of a lifetime. The debate now is just what level of risk should one of the early "astronauts" - Branson is going to confer this title on Virgin Galactic customers - be allowed to face, and how should this be defined in legislation. The Branson/Rutan duo have ambushed Congress and the US Federal Aviation Administration with their venture. Although both authorities have been actively grappling with space regulations, they had not yet succeeded in drafting rules for a craft carrying fare-paying passengers.

Branson says Virgin Galactic will offer $150,000-per-flight trips beginning in 2007. Rutan did not attempt even to hint this might be a little ambitious, and claims he does not foresee any problems either with gaining FAA certification for his craft in the time, or any vulnerability to product liability legislation. Full marks for optimism.

The USA is the only Western country where such a venture could possibly be born. Europe's regulators would strangle a commercial operation like this at birth in the name of consumer protection. But that is not to say US legislators and regulators will not agonise over this one. As it stands today, this is still an experimental project in its very early stages. It is accepted that anyone - in the name of leisure or sport - should be allowed to take risks provided they know what they are doing and harm no-one else. But when a company persuades people to pay for the privilege of being propelled into the world's select band of "astronauts", the seller has first to establish what the level of risk is in order to describe it.

When pioneers enter any new realm, the risks are, by definition, not well established or controlled as they are with mature technology or practices. But there is a fine line between offering a new service - as early airlines did in the 1920s and 1930s - that is as safe as it can be made at the time, and inviting people to pay to be a part of an experiment. Congress and the FAA have the job of deciding how to define the difference.

Source: Flight International