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U.S. House Passes Bill Allowing Negligence In Commercial Space Travel

dangers of space travel“Launching rockets into space is inherently dangerous,” observes U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson. The Armagh Planetarium lists things such as space debris, cosmic rays, flaws in spacesuits, accidents during launch and re-entry, breathing in needle sharp moon dust, and being sent off hurtling through the vacuum of space as a consequence of letting go of a spaceship for even a moment. The thing about space, though, is that it’s very, very big, and largely unexplored, so the unknown dangers of space travel are almost certainly much greater in number than the dangers we know about.

In the face of this risk, you can probably guess what the U.S. House of Representatives did yesterday. They voted to remove commercial space operations from all liability for harm that comes to passengers on their spaceships – even if the harm comes from negligence of sensible safeguards for predictable risks to life and limb.

The legislation was the SPACE Act of 2015, H.R. 2262, which will, if signed into law, make it a legal requirement for travelers on commercial space flights to sign legal waivers of all rights to compensation for themselves or their families in case of an accident.

Despite our best efforts, and over 50 years of technology development, accidents still occur. Just last year the U.S. commercial launch industry suffered two serious accidents, one of which resulted in a very unfortunate death. I cannot support a commercial space bill that minimizes the issue of safety, like H.R. 2262 does, said Eddie Bernice Johnson, explaining her opposition to the bill.

Unfortunately, most of her colleagues weren’t bothered by the legislation’s encouragement of death trap spaceships. The SPACE Act of 2015 passed by a vote of 284 to 133.

7 thoughts on “U.S. House Passes Bill Allowing Negligence In Commercial Space Travel”

  1. ella says:

    Actually, at this point I tend to agree with that. However, there should be stiff criminal penalties for harm to passengers caused by negligence, either by the operating crew, or the producers and installers, of equipment on the space craft, and the craft itself. Passenger error cannot be ruled out as a cause of injury or death. To that end, anyone who wishes to travel in a space craft should be strenuously trained to help prevent them from being the cause of their own injury and possibly others. Even then accidents happen. To bring further costs to the endeavor at this time would only delay the advancement of the industry. It is expensive to say the least. Enforced regulations and legal penalties are needed at this time.

    1. J Clifford says:

      What is so damned important about sending commercial flights into outer space that we need to worry about bringing down the costs for the corporations?

      Are you really saying that making these corporations immune from lawsuit for negligence is going to bring us some greater benefit that makes the loss of human life worthwhile, Ella?

      1. ella says:

        J. Clifford, at this time if there is a fatal pilot error, likely everyone will die. And recently we have seen that airlines have hired deeply depressed people who in turn kill a lot of people with them. In the name of moving on to other planets, and/or exploration for other life, we are in the first throes of leaving our “safe” haven, this world. Safety is paramount. Yet the government sacrificed astronauts in the early launches. Men who willingly put their lives on the line for a chance to be first in space. No doubt they were insured by the government. Private industry doesn’t have an endless supply of income that comes from private sources. Probably utilizing government grants as well as private investors. Space travel at this time is by its nature a hazardous venture. If private citizens want to take the same risk that trained astronauts do for the pleasure of space travel, then they need to be as well trained as possible. The Builders of the craft need to be strongly monitored for quality and efficiency of parts and materials, assembly and testing. The pilots are trained and certainly are going to take all precautions possible. They depend on the machines they are using and their training as well as current technology to bring everyone home safely. Do you believe the end product is to blame for everything and therefore should be the target of revenge in lawsuits?

        1. J Clifford says:

          When the end product is slipshod and dangerous, the people who created it are to blame, and should take legal responsibility for the harm they bring to others. That’s what legal liability is.

          Lawsuits are not about revenge. Lawsuits are about ensuring that when people endanger others, through malice or neglect, they pay the price – as punishment, but also as a deterrent.

          If private companies don’t have enough money to take people into outer space with a reasonable level of safety, then they don’t have enough money to take people into outer space.

          1. ella says:

            Now we agree. Legal responsibility should weight on the shoulders of those who produce a “slipshod and dangerous” situation for travelers and crew of space missions. Some lawsuits are about revenge, others for profit, some as a punishment. Punishment should lay directly on those who have caused the “accident”. But remember today we are still developing technology. Do you really believe that, in private industry where entrepreneurs and investors depend on accuracy and dependability to make a return for their time and investment, that deliberate short cuts would be made on their part? They depend on the reliability of manufacturing and assembly for the machines and training for the human element to prevent “accidents”. But we are human/machines reaching out into the unknown with limited knowledge, seeking a little bit more each time. This law pertains to the curious and adventurous, the paying passenger who deserves every guarantee of safety possible. Stress “possible”. People who are willing to “take the risk” for their own purposes. Who then, are those who want to sue in the case of an accident? Who is harmed? We all grieve the loss of a loved one(s). When a person jumps off a cliff with a parachute and it does not open, who is sued? When a family gets in a small, private airplane and it malfunctions or pilot error crashes it, who is sued? When a major airlines has an aircraft go down killing many passengers, there is insurance available to the families. That should be the recourse in commercial space flight. If the passengers are willing to sign a waiver, that is their business. If an insurance company wants to offer a policy for the flight, well and good.

      2. thedogfacedboy says:

        Exploration into new territories is inherently dangerous. Almost every historical human explorer faced terrible odds against coming back alive. This is one of the traits that makes the human spirit exciting and wonderful.

        I’m not surprised at the knee-jerk liberal reaction against anything that looks, smells, or acts corporate.

        The unfortunate truth is that our society has become overly-litigious. Personal responsibility is not strongly promoted anymore, by popular press or the leaders in government. It’s always somebody else’s fault; there’s always someone else who should “take care of it”. That’s one of the major downfalls I view of the current progressive mindset.

        I saw the overreaction to the “free range parents” who let their kids walk down the street to the park together. The rights of an individual to assume a measured risk when deciding what their own children can do seem to be eroding more quickly. Can something bad happen to them? Sure. But all risk cannot be removed from life, unless you want to live in the Matrix, I suppose, in those little vats.

        Opening up space travel to commercial travel will most likely advance its technology and adoption faster than if the government did it alone. Someone will innovate, someone will copy and improve it to compete with them, and everything will move faster. I know total socialists and progressives think only the State should do all that, but most of our country’s great advances didn’t work that way. Profit, fame, and personal achievement drove most of it. Argue that all you’d like; I don’t care.

        I believe if you want to do something crazy, like ride Musk’s (or later Walmart’s) rocket ship into space, that’s up to you. I’m not reckless enough to do it, and I suggest no one who values coming back down to their life and family do it either. But if you like walking tightropes, sky-diving off cliffs, swimming with sharks, etc., have at it.

        I think the law just protects those who innovate from being crushed by people who like to think they were brave, but their families get made when things possibly go awry and they sue the space travel firms like crazy, and get awarded dumb huge amounts.

        Everyone who tries going into space ought to assume from the get-go that you will likely die. If you come back, great, you won Russian Roulette. If 5 out of 10 space launches blow up, I’m willing to bet a lot of their “brave” riders will start rethinking their trips. If one out of ten don’t make it, then you start thinking the odds aren’t too bad. If you have a choice between the Musk spacecraft, with a 90% safe record, and the Walmart (apologies, again) space launch with a 20% record, I’ll again be willing to be a lot of people will pay a little bit more for the better launch company. If not, well, it’s their gamble.

        Speaking of slipshod and dangerous activities, what about wind turbines? According to some reports, they are killing thousand and possibly hundreds of thousands of birds and bats around the nation and world. It used to be against the law to kill an eagle, but I read that the Obama Justice Department was giving wind farm operators a 30 year pass on their violations.

        So I guess the ends justify the means? We just want clean safe windpower, so damn those stupid birds. Why not wait to build wind farms until we have a good technology proven for making it safe for innocent wildlife? Why not wait until it is safe?

        Space: why not wait until it is safe?
        Ships: why not wait until they can’t sink?
        Planes: why not wait until they are safe and can’t fall?
        Walking: why not sit in your chair and wait until we create a softer, safer ground for falls?

        get those pads and helmets on folks, I’m going to walk to the fridge for a nice, safe adult beverage.

  2. Bruce Nappi says:

    This article reminds me of a novel titled “The Space Merchants” by Frederik Pohl 1952. The theme of the novel is the take-over of society by corporate America. So, for anyone still in denial that the world is approaching a repeat of the “fall of the Roman Empire”, just consider two contrasting models.

    One is the world roadway systems. Anyone who has experienced commuting in any major city has direct experience with the human inability to deal with social complexity. Roads “designed” for speeds of 55 or 65 mph become parking lots every day of the week. The loss of productivity, personal leisure time, and increase in stress induced illness are devastating.

    On the other hand, we have airline travel as a rare example of how complexity can be managed. In the 1970’s the news media covered EVERY airline crash. The industry realized that as it grew, these news items would be so frequent they would severely hurt business. At the same time, researchers at NASA had figured out that astronaut TRAINING methods were the key to eliminating aircraft crashes because they were primarily caused by human error. Crew Resource Management (CRM) was made universal. The result is, since the early 90’s, passenger deaths on commercial flights, excluding terrorism, are almost ZERO.

    Anyone who wants to dismiss this as “what’s the big deal” just needs to compare it to current statistics on medical care. Deaths in the U.S. due to avoidable medical errors are now estimated at over 440,000 per year, the third leading cause of death in the country. (http://www.hospitalsafetyscore.org/newsroom/display/hospitalerrors-thirdleading-causeofdeathinus-improvementstooslow) And our political leaders have convinced people to put up with this – i.e. government passes bills allowing negligence in medical care. Wolves guarding the hen house and all that.

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