More than 50 companies world over are actively investing and lobbying to make commercial spaceflights for tourists a regular feature of the future. Given the limited number of spacefaring nations today, these companies are largely based in the US and Russia, with other stakeholders being Japan, China, Germany and France. So where does India figure in this scenario?
India has proved itself to be an independent space power in the past. ISRO required less investment to send Mangalyaan to Mars, than Hollywood did to make the film Gravity — and that impressively small budget was, to a great extent, attributed to the lower cost of Indian engineering. In 2011, the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, Dehradun, conducted a pilot study exploring the scope of a space tourism industry in India, which suggests that India could reduce the overall cost of commercial space travel. It states that at present, anyone looking to buy a seat to outer space will have to dish out roughly $200,000 but if India can bring that figure down by a fourth, it will be a competitive player in the market. This will also create a domestic market for space tourism amongst its own upper crust, drawing up to 15,000 passengers a year.
Why it’s worth it
Why should India stick its fingers in another pie? Firstly, because it can. Secondly, investment in space tourism can generate revenues and employment on a sizeable scale. Space tourism would require personnel for building the spacecraft, to training travellers, to investment and insurance. Thirdly, the move will bring manned spaceflights, so far not attributed significance, to the forefront of India’s space activities. In no way can this be termed an unnecessary project; manned spaceflights have made very real contributions to human life in the past. While countering the many problems of astronauts in space, NASA invented the CAT scanner, joystick and long-distance telecommunication — inventions that are taken for granted every day while people sit back and deride the “futility” of space exploration.
The importance of regulations
Currently, India is unequipped to incentivise such an industry — there are no laws governing the creation of one. The US passed the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984 for licensing of entities undertaking commercial space launches. A similar framework needs to be put in place in India pre-emptively, so as to ensure that potential investors are not discouraged by the lack of predictability of their actions. The Indian government needs to lead industries towards the sector by regulating it the way the USA has, instead of chasing industries to catch up with them once they have already reaped the benefits of an unregulated industry.
ISRO can also provide significant support to our fledging private space industry in terms of access to infrastructure, research and mentorship. The government should encourage public private partnerships in this arena.
The current international law regime governing space exploration, presided by the Outer Space Treaty, only envisages outer space activities conducted by states, and thus only holds states liable for the acts of all spacecraft registered under their nationality. While this is largely explained by the socio-economic-technological conditions of the 1960s, when the possibility of private participation in space was not contemplated, it does give rise to some notable issues which haven’t really come up before. For instance, if a private American company’s spacecraft damages Canadian territory on impact, under existing international law the American government would be liable for damages, even when it may have little or no control over that spacecraft’s operation in reality. An extension of this is the potential risk to the participants of commercial spaceflights themselves. In the event of any accidents, who is liable to them and how much, considering that they may not be given the same level of intensive training that astronauts undergo? These are issues that can only be rectified by a consent-based arrangement and agreement between spacefaring nations to regulate commercial spaceflight.
Another significant, but ignored, dimension to space tourism is the sanctity and expertise tied to the job of an astronaut, versus the repercussions of exposing relatively untrained civilians to the same environment and the same risks. Astronauts are symbolic beings, the “envoys of mankind in the universe” risking their lives in the public interests of exploration and science; as Dr Manfred Lachs, one of the longest serving judges of the International Court of Justice and a renowned jurist, has stated, “the missions they perform and the risks they incur justify the special standing and legal protection afforded to them.”
The protections allowed to astronauts under the Outer Space Treaty and the Astronaut’s Rescue Agreement cannot easily be extended to space tourists, who undertake spaceflights for personal interest. However, space travellers like Mark Shuttleworth and Anousheh Ansari, the first self-funded woman in space, having participated in scientific studies on board the International Space Station, have rejected the term “tourist” as inappropriate. These experiences show that the “space tourism” market is not just a bunch of excited billionaires with much money to spend, but is also a group of individuals who are willing to contribute to the exploration of what the universe has to offer.
There are plenty of issues that will need to be resolved before India can become a haven for commercial spaceflights, starting with regulation, the search for investors and more rapid thinking than the government has undertaken in decades. But with the advent of the private space exploration industry, the question we must ask ourselves, is, “Why not?”
Anirudh Rastogi is a lawyer and founding partner at Tanikella Rastogi Associates and Sonal Mashankar, a student of law and space-law enthusiast.