Amazon boss plans to blast into space. Why can’t he get insurance?

A quick guide to Jeff Bezos’s big trip (and what it means for space tourism).

Why it matters

  • Amazon’s Jeff Bezos is counting down to launch in July on his first trip into space, onboard his company Blue Horizon’s rocket.
  • But he can’t get travel insurance. Experts say regulation is yet to catch up to this dawning age of “space tourism”.

Amazon boss Jeff Bezos is out in front in a three-horse space race with Elon Musk and Richard Branson. The mission? To become the first space-tech billionaire to actually travel to the stars. When Bezos launches into space on July 20, the 52nd anniversary of the moon landing, it’s expected to kick off a new era of “space tourism” among the world’s wealthy, but experts say regulation is yet to catch up. So far, it seems even Bezos can’t get travel insurance for his 11-minute trip.

Jeff Bezos has long dreamed of travelling to space.Credit:Bloomberg

Who’s going to space and where do I sign up?

If you can’t get through NASA’s rigorous astronaut selection regime, it helps to be one of the world’s richest people. “Ever since I was five years old, I’ve dreamed of travelling to space,” Bezos said in an Instagram post announcing the trip in June. So far, he says he will take his brother Mark on board his company Blue Horizon’s six-seater rocket as it shoots up about 100 kilometres into space, in the first manned spaceflight for Blue Horizon and what is considered the first commercial tourism trip to space. Blue Horizon sold a spare passenger seat for $US28 million ($36 million) at auction, promising a stunning look at the curvature of the Earth and about four minutes to unbuckle and enjoy the weightlessness of zero-gravity. Australian National University astrophysicist Brad Tucker admits he half expected to see Musk or Branson try to buy any spare seats on offer themselves “just to have it go up empty”. The company says nearly 7600 people from 159 countries registered to bid on the seat that went up for auction.

As it was, days after the announcement, an apparent leak from Branson’s Virgin Galactic hinted Bezos may yet be beaten into orbit by a Branson Fourth of July launch, but Virgin, which bills itself as the world’s first “spaceliner”, has since remained coy about the timing. Meanwhile, Musk’s Space X is dominating the rapidly-privatising rocket-building industry, already ferrying NASA astronauts into space and now having beaten Blue Horizon to a $US2.9-billion dollar NASA contract to build the next human lander for upcoming moon missions. (“Can’t get it up (to orbit) lol”, Musk Tweeted when Bezos challenged NASA’s decision).

So far, Musk is not planning to board SpaceX’s own first all-civilian flight, scheduled to launch into orbit for three or four days later this year. (“I wonder if that’s almost to avoid attention from the other [billionaires],” Tucker laughs). Instead, tech mogul Jared Isaacman is funding the three seats alongside him, doled out to members of the public who won a competition. (Yes, like when Homer Simpson won a competition to go into space.) Japanese billionaire Yusaku Maezawa, meanwhile, plans to invite artists with him on a longer SpaceX trip around the moon planned for 2023, or what Tucker calls “Woodstock in space”, while in 2022 a civilian crew will jump on another SpaceX capsule for a $55-million vacation at the International Space Station.

OK, how about that risk assessment?

Space is dangerous, even an 11-minute cruise could go very wrong, very fast, Tucker says. “It’s obvious no one wants to insure this. It’s not just about accidents in space and, yes, we know there will be accidents like there are in every industry, but it’s more the long-term effects of people going into space.”

Tucker suspects that the chance of equipment exploding or fatally malfunctioning mid-flight will be fairly low, given the number of successful tests and checks all three companies have been running. “But they’re not looking at the humans enough. We already know astronauts have a variety of health problems, from clots to bone density and cardiovascular issues, even those just in space for short stints. You can see it when they come down: you’ll never see an astronaut standing up because all the blood is suddenly drained back down from their brains by gravity, and they’re pale and dizzy.”

And what is known about space’s side-effects comes from fit astronauts studied extensively by medical teams, during and after their missions. “That’s not what you’re average tourist who can afford hundreds of thousands of dollars on a space flight is going to look like,” Tucker says. “We could see your grey nomads, instead of selling the house for a caravan, they spend the savings on a trip around the moon. The older you are, like many things, the greater the risk.”

There have been space tourists before, as early as 2001, but such trips have been run through space agencies, meaning those on board were monitored and trained as regular astronauts, Tucker says, alongside professionals. Branson’s “spaceliner” will have pilots, but SpaceX and Blue Horizon are autonomous, and in the case of all three there is virtually no regulation. With the wealthy already buying tickets, some US lawmakers now say it’s time to bring in standards and rules for space tourism, and so avoid a repeat of the chaotic early days of aviation.

The cabin of a Virgin Galactic starship.Credit:Virgin Galactic

While there’s already a near $500 million market to insure satellites, rockets and unmanned flights, experts say there are no laws to insure passengers on board such commercial trips like Blue Horizon’s upcoming mission for injury or death. And it’s unlikely anyone would get a claim accepted if they tried. “The more missions and data the insurers have, the more they will start to weigh the risks,” Tucker says. By contrast, professional astronauts are generally covered by their space agency, such as NASA, and government life insurance programs. Richard Parker of Assure Space, which specialises in space insurance, says NASA and the US government generally do not buy liability cover for missions but launches are in effect insured by taxpayers.

In air travel, companies are liable in the case of passenger deaths, but US insurance experts told Reuters they were unaware of plans to bring in similar rules for space tourism there as yet (though some lower-flying sub-orbital missions have begun already making enquiries about potential cover.) “In 10 years’ time, maybe the two lines, aviation and spaceflight will look very similar,” says Parker. “Some legislative somewhere will say, ‘look, we’re now having average Joes flying on these launch vehicles and need to protect them’.”

The Insurance Council of Australia’s Lisa Kable says that while traditionally space insurance doesn’t cover people, “given the rapid advancements in commercial space travel for private citizens, there may be potential…to develop new products in the future to cater for this emerging risk”. Right now, she says any civilian heading into space would need to try to get their own tailored insurance cover drawn up, “negotiated with a specialty underwriter”.

But they have training right? Right?

Even Homer Simpson had hit the gym when NASA was choosing its “everyman” astronaut in the fictional TV show. What astounds Tucker is that commercial flights planned so far seem to have so few requirements. While they all talk about some level of space training, Virgin’s runs for only three days and Blue Horizon’s is the day before launch, with the paying passenger only required to fit a height and weight limit (and stump up the most cash at auction), though the flight time is very short. SpaceX’s competition required heigh and weight caps too but also put entrants through physical and psychological tests. “If you can go on … an intense roller-coaster ride, you should be fine flying on Dragon,” Musk said of the SpaceX craft. (The winners have since been climbing mountains together as part of training.)

Tucker says there’s a reason they call the flight simulator at NASA “the vomit comet”. “The human body is essentially plumbing with skin and, in space, your fluids move differently. Even the command pilot on the Apollo 8 mission [in 1968] couldn’t stop vomiting.”

Still, while Tucker won’t be rushing to get into space himself just yet, he expects the market for such tourism will remain strong. He points to the tragic case of a Virgin Galactic test flight that exploded over the Californian desert in 2014, killing a pilot. And yet people continued to pre-book tickets at $250,000 each.

“These next few years will be an interesting ride,” Tucker says. “People have been talking about this coming for years but suddenly it’s here faster than we thought. If there are incidents, that might put people off or … force the hand of regulators. Or people might just keep paying to go up.

“It’s the start of a new era, and Bezos knows it.”

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