Recently, the Space and Advanced Communications Research Group at George Washington University issued a report titled “Space Planes and Space Tourism: The Industry and the Regulation of its Safety”. The report is primarily a regurgitation of existing information about companies developing suborbital and orbital vehicles, the spaceports existing or under development to host those vehicles, and some general information about the emerging personal spaceflight industry. There’s not much new in the report in that regard, and some of the information looks to be a little stale.
One area where the report makes an original contribution, however, is in its assessment of what it considers potential “showstoppers” for space tourism. “At this stage, our studies suggest only that these are serious issues requiring urgent attention and perhaps creative problem solving so as to avoid these concerns becoming barriers to the development of the space tourism industry,” the report explains. The report identified three such showstoppers: environmental concerns caused by the effects of high volumes of vehicles passing through the stratosphere and ozone layer, orbital debris, and the weaponization of space.
However, are these concerns really showstoppers? Orbital debris is a real concern, although it touches upon all uses of space, not just tourism; moreover, it would have virtually no effect on suborbital spaceflight, given the likely altitudes and flight durations of such vehicles. Why space weaponization would be that big of a concern isn’t fleshed out in the report: it merely states that “the policy issue could well have an adverse impact on the development of space tourism as well as on the safety concerns of future passengers.” Yet, people rarely think about the weaponization of land, sea, or air when they take terrestrial vacations (unless, say, they’re venturing into war zones or are worried about terrorism).
That leaves the environmental issue. Here, the problem is that the effects of hundreds or thousands of suborbital and orbital passenger flights a year will depend on their method of propulsion: what sort of exhausts are they spewing into the stratosphere and what effect would it have there. The report recommends: “It would therefore seem to be a subject of some urgency for a regulatory agency to immediately investigate the implications of the environmental impact of such space plane flights to very high altitudes on a recurring basis—and just as soon as possible.” Such a study would probably be of interest, although not necessarily with the degree of urgency requested in the report given the low levels of flight activity in the immediate future and the uncertainty about what environmental impacts, if any, such flights would have.