Commercial Spaceflight’s Learning Period

by Garrett Emmons


What You Can Do

On February 15, Virgin Galactic announced that it would be reopening tickets to the public for a trip to suborbital space. The price tag is $450,000, with an initial deposit of $150,000, which is more than six times the median income in the United States [1]. Space tourism companies, like Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin, are certainly not targeting the median consumer, but rather billionaires, of which there are more now than ever. There are currently 2,775 billionaires in the world, with 660 joining the ranks in the last year alone; that is one created roughly every 13 hours [2]! With such stark numbers, it is no surprise that critics consider space tourism, part of the larger industry of commercial space flight, the ultimate symbol of excess and vanity by the world’s wealthiest, while supporters declare it the necessary next chapter in the story of humanity. 

Regardless of whether one wants the industry’s success or failure, commercial spaceflight’s regulation is in need of examination. The United States government currently and officially considers it in its learning period; this effectively prohibits the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the government agency in charge of all civilian aviation, including spaceflight, from making rules surrounding human well-being during flights and other important aspects. [3]. The stated justification behind this prescription is “to avoid burdening a nascent industry” [3]. In other words, the government believes that creating too many regulations that companies would have to comply with would slow down the development of commercial spaceflight too much to be worth the benefit any legislation could provide. More importantly, this learning period designation was originally set to expire back in 2012, but has been extended multiple times and is at present predicted to expire on October 1, 2023.

Instead of direct laws regarding passenger safety, operations are based on informed consent: “operators must notify spaceflight participants (i.e. occupants who are neither government astronauts nor crew employed by the operator) about the risks of launch and reentry, and inform them in writing that the U.S. government has not certified their spacecraft as safe. Participants must then provide written informed consent” [3]. This approach may seem reasonable to those who wish to buy tickets to outer space at the present time, but the learning period ban on regulation has serious consequences for remaining on Earth as well. 

Last year, 21 employees of Blue Origin, either former or active, signed a letter claiming that the Blue Origin work environment was dehumanizing and that professional dissent was quickly suppressed. They also alleged that the CEO and his close group make “unilateral decisions, often without the buy-in of engineers, other experts, or senior leaders across various departments” [4]. In seeming accordance with this notion, a senior engineer resigned the prior year due to the company’s choice to embrace a “schedule-biased drive [that] is incapable of producing safe systems engineering,” further stating that in “this environment, safety is not an option, even if we repeatedly state that it is our highest priority” [4]. Only one of the signees, Alexandra Abrams, consented to going on record. She was present in meetings where she learned the company’s strategies, leading her to make claims that the company’s leadership sees employee burnout as a natural result and is unwilling to rigorously follow the rules.

The letter triggered an FAA investigation that ultimately resulted in the discovery of “no specific safety issues,” according to a statement by the agency [4]. However, CNN Business was able to acquire emails from the FAA that showed investigators were not allowed to directly interact with the letter’s signees [5]. Additionally, investigators were barred from going to Blue Origin and requesting “documents or interviews with current employees or management” [5]. Thanks to the learning period designation, workers in the commercial spaceflight industry have no way of obtaining federal whistleblower status. According to the Department of Labor, “an employer cannot retaliate against you for exercising your rights under the Department of Labor’s whistleblower protection laws. Retaliation includes such actions as firing or laying off, demoting, denying overtime or promotion, or reducing pay or hours” [6]. These protections do not exist yet when it comes to spaceflight.

Blue Origin’s reputation may have taken a hit from those aware of these reports of wrong behavior, but overall the space-intent corporation continues with business as usual. On February 17, Blue Origin’s CEO, Bob Smith, told an FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington that the company’s main challenge is its limited supply and that they plan to build more of their New Shepard rocket boosters, which they currently only have two [7]. Based on the high demand they are experiencing, Smith spoke of easily doubling their three crewed missions last year in the coming one. Unlike Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin has not publicly announced prices for tickets, though the winning bid for a seat on their first flight was $28 million. 

One’s concerns might lie with the well-being of the employees of these companies than with the success of their idealistic, stated objectives. Alternatively, one may in fact see commercial spaceflight as the vital next step in human progress, either to obtain new resources for our planet or to find a new one to eventually call home. Regardless, it is clear that the industry’s learning period status cannot be renewed once it expires. In order to both protect workers dealing with poor conditions and to ensure that the industry’s development is a steady, stable one—lest high-profile billionaires and their companies trip up too severely trying to outdo each other–the regulation of spaceflight companies must come under significantly stricter scrutiny.   

Works Cited