Everyone knows about public sector astronauts (e.g., 'The Astronauts', 'NASA Astronauts', etc.) but did you know that the legal requirements for becoming a private sector astronaut are actually pretty tame? For about 3 years, I worked for the part of the US government that oversees private human spaceflight activities, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. I'd like to share some of the things I learned during my work there with you, and to make myself available for any questions or comments you might have about how things (public or private, human or mineral) get launched into space. This discussion will focus on private human space flight regulations. I'll follow up with others on launch infrastructure and private space technology development and how these are changing the way NASA gets into space.
So here's the deal: you are a wealthy individual, or perhaps you represent a well-funded academic consortium with a space-based experiment to launch. You can either launch through public or private means. The public means is through NASA or the US Air Force, which oversees almost all orbital launch activities and infrastructure in the US. The private means is by contract with those industrial bodies that service NASA or the Air Force (it's pretty inbred, I know) as regular customers. NASA/USAF has a giant book of regulations (if you can't sleep at night, read an older version of the regs here- EWR, you'll be asleep within minutes) that are basically a step-by-step guide for how and when to launch stuff into space as a government entity. These are what are called 'prescriptive regulations', which means it's like a recipe. You need to track the launch vehicle with System X, which is proven and tested to Y Specifications, and can be launched under Z Set of Conditions (in your best German accent, yell, 'Und zer are almost no exceptions allowed!'). These regulations embody all of the lessons learned from tragic and nearly-tragic mistakes that our rocket engineering forefathers and foremothers made since the dawn of the space age.
Private regulations are a different matter. They're found in the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), 14 CFR parts 400 to be exact. So when companies like Boeing and Lockheed decided to open up launches for private businesses (for private telecommunications or imaging satellites, for example), nobody knew how to do that, they didn't even have an office to give them a license or permit for their activities. The procedures used by NASA/USAF were too prescriptive, but there were no alternatives, so the Office of Commercial Space Transportation basically copied the EWR and cut out some of the more specific regulations, and moved to a regime called 'performance based regulations'. Think of it like this- if you need to climb a mountain, a prescriptive regulation would say, 'take trail A, then trail C to trail F to the summit over the next 24 hours to stay safe.' A performance based regulation would say, 'take any trail or no trail at all, so long as nobody dies, at your own convenience.' The result is the same, except you can decide for yourself what to do as long as everyone stays safe. So launching privately means that you can choose how you get your crap into space, but you get this flexibility at the price of being liable for any damages that happen if you make a poor decision. As Uncle Ben told Peter Parker, 'With great power comes great responsibility.' He should have worked in the private space industry.
That's how we come to private human space flight, and where things get super interesting (if you're still reading at this point, wow, you're a trooper, you must really want to go into space!). NASA's human space flight requirements are designed to protect astronauts who are incredibly expensive pieces of public property investment (the cost of training a single astronaut easily exceeds 10's, if not 100's of millions of $$$$'s). So they're really onerous, and it means if you have medical conditions in your family, you basically can't go into space. But lots of people who are filthy rich and are space nerds at heart have health problems too, and really want to burn their money behind them in a blazing trail of rocket fuel into space. They point out that most of the pioneers in industries that want to take risks are private individuals, willing to put their money and their a**** into the hot seat to prove what can be done.
As a result, private human space flight regulations are really, really simple and are almost entirely performance-based regulations. They basically say, in not so many words:
1. If you want to go into space, you need to be informed of the risks by a competent person and be willing to sign a document that says 'I don't care if my eyeballs bleed due to a rare genetic anomaly that nobody knows about.' You also need to be informed about how reliable your brand spankin' new private space craft actually is, not what was reported in the brochure but actually what may have happened during the testing phase as well that nobody read about in your Google News feed, and still be willing to go up into a giant controlled explosive device with a known probability of failure that may be much higher than, say, jumping a motorbike across the Snake River Canyon. This is called informed consent. It's legalese for 'It's my ass and I'll do with it what I please, here's my money.'
2. If you want to go into space and be a private astronaut and actually manipulate the controls of the space craft, you need to have a pilot's license and an instrument rating, because you need to be able to interface with air traffic control and not crash into other airplanes at 35,000 feet full of people flying to Disneyland or Las Vegas for the weekend.
3. The spaceship you fly in needs to have some minimal life support systems, such as oxygen, temperature, pressure and restraint systems controls, so that you don't come back as a big chunk of spam in your seat. And there needs to be at least one redundant source of pressure and/or oxygen- you can't just tie a big plastic bag around your head and expect to live off the air for the length of the trip, your space ship needs to be designed by someone who knows something about how to survive during an emergency if your primary system fails.
4. Your space ship operator that you just gave lots of money too needs to train you on how to safely survive the most probable emergency scenarios. This is the equivalent of that little speech that flight atttendants give you that you always ignore (the nearest exits are located here and there, the oxygen masks will deploy, etc.). For this trip, you might want to pay attention to that training.
There are a couple more requirements, but that's the gist of it. The requirements themselves are very simple to read and understand, but it's up to the operator of the space ship to obtain a license for human space flight activities, and to convince the government that they've met the intent of the performance-based requirements. At the current time, nobody has been issued a license for human commercial space flight activities to the best of my knowledge, though permits (intended for research and development, not for commercial money-making) have been issued for human activities, though this may change as companies like Virgin Galactic, SpaceX and Orbital Sciences move from demonstration flights to commercial flights for private and public customers.
What this means for astrobiologist astronauts- there's nothing in the private space flight regs that rule us out, in fact, they're quite easy requirements to meet. If you scrap together a couple hundred grand for a suborbital boost for a low-g astrobio science experiment, there should be almost no real barrier to your carrying out your mission/experiment. Contact me if you have any specific questions about circumstances that you think might rule you out, I have a decent mind for what the government would ask if you were to want to go.
My next rant will be about space launch infrastructure, basically all the stuff that you need to launch big chunks of engineered metal into space that meet government requirements for safety and reliability. You might be surprised that space infrastructure is located all around the US and the world...anyway, onwards and upwards!