Space Trip: Bon Voyage Jeff!

By Jerri-Lynn Scofield, who has worked as a securities lawyer and a derivatives trader. She is currently writing a book about textile artisans.

Now that Jeff Bezos and his friends are getting set to be launched into space, what should we expect to follow?

Why, lawsuits of course. The WSJ ran an interesting story yesterday, Jeff Bezos and Other Space Tourists Fly at Their Own Risk in which via its headline, the paper attempted to forestall the very possibility of space tourism lawsuits:

When Jeff Bezos climbs into the New Shepard capsule for its first passenger trip to space next month, his safety will be almost entirely in the hands of the spaceflight company he founded two decades ago.

Mr. Bezos plans to join the small band of tourists who have flown in space as the emerging industry prepares to launch hundreds of people aloft. For now, they aren’t protected by the meticulous federal safety regulations that govern commercial air travel.

Passengers planning a ride on the New Shepard must sign a form waiving their right to sue Mr. Bezos’s Blue Origin LLC in the event of an accident. Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc., SPCE 0.71% which plans to send paying passengers on its space plane as early as next year, requires a similar step.

Accident law is mostly a matter of state law, and most state courts enforce waivers of liability for negligence. Most however will not enforce waivers that purport to protect the defendant against claims for gross negligence (or for intentional torts, for that matter).

Waiver or no waiver, there will inevitably be lawsuits if something goes wrong. More on that point in a moment. But first, I’d love to get a look at one of these space carriage contracts to see the handiwork of very clever lawyers trying to insulate their space company clients from liability. Many, many billable hours have no doubt gone into specifying choice of law, venue, jurisdiction, and arbitration provisions, to govern disputes. (By the same token, I’d also love to see the contracts people sign to be guided up Everest. If anyone has one, please send.)

How do I know there will be lawsuits? Well, because there will inevitably be serious injuries or deaths at some point. Space travel is no walk in the park; it’s an an inherently dangerous enterprise. I remember vividly visiting my grandparents when Gus Grissom, Ed White and Roger B. Chaffee died during pre-launch testing for the Apollo 1 mission in January 1967. But we don’t have to go back that far to find space-related fatalities . In 2014, as the WSJ tells the story in Virgin Galactic Spacecraft Crashes, Killing One:

A rocket-powered aircraft designed for space tourists broke apart and crashed during a test flight in California’s Mojave Desert on Friday, killing one pilot and injuring the other.

And when there are deaths, the lawsuits will follow – especially given how expensive these flights are. Meaning only the very richest can ever hope to take one. As yesterday’s Journal article noted:

Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have said they are following rigorous testing and safety standards as they prepare to open ticket sales. Analysts expect flights to cost as much as $500,000 for a brief up-and-down that includes several minutes of weightlessness. Blue Origin’s flights take about 10 minutes. Virgin Galactic’s take more than two hours because the spacecraft is launched from an airplane that must first climb to a high altitude.

Mr. Bezos will be joined on the planned July 20 flight by his brother, Mark Bezos, and the winner of a charity auction due to conclude Saturday.

Blue Origin said more than 6,000 bidders from 143 countries have taken part in the auction so far. The highest bid stood at $4.8 million by Thursday evening. The company, like Virgin Galactic, hasn’t commented on future ticket prices.

That’s a lot of moolah. When people with such gargantuan resources die in an accident, the executors of their estates are more or less required to sue.

The WSJ also discussed another of its pet themes, self-regulation, in yesterday’s piece:

Congress agreed in 2004 to let the space-tourism industry self-regulate to speed its preparations for passenger flights. Years of delays, including an accident that killed a Virgin Galactic test pilot in 2014, have pushed back the start of flights for fare-paying passengers. The policy has been extended several times and now runs until October 2023.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s jurisdiction is limited to protecting public safety and the environment during launches and re-entries, a spokesman for the agency said. “Congress has not allowed the FAA to extend its authority to the safety of crew or space flight participants,” the spokesman said.

Regulators, lawmakers and industry executives are debating whether to introduce tougher rules, such as requiring passengers to be trained for the rigors of reaching the edge of space. The companies already offer some training for their short flights, which include periods of high G-forces and the possible disorientation that can come with weightlessness.

The 2014 Journal article cited above makes it clear that all the parties – including the companies, members of Congress, and transportation regulators – have been kicking this particular can down the road for a while as the issue is also discussed therein.

Self-regulation means the industry will regulate itself. How much training do the companies think is appropriate before they’ll rocket you into space? According to yesterday’s WSJ:

The companies provide training over two or three days. Virgin Galactic’s preparation includes sessions with its pilots, instruction on weightlessness and time in a cabin mock-up. The company offers passengers optional flights in aircraft that simulate zero gravity, as well as time in a centrifuge that replicates some of the forces astronauts experience during flight.

Blue Origin said traveling in its spacecraft requires minimal training. “It’s familiarization of the safety features and preparations to travel to space on the fully autonomous New Shepard rocket,” said a spokeswoman.

The cost of space launches means the rockets and capsules have been tested much less exhaustively in flight than commercial aircraft, which are sent on thousands of hours of test flights before carrying paying customers.

Jerri-Lynn here. Two or three days? When the inevitable cases wind their way through the courts, we’ll get to see just how clever those lawyers were – whether they earned their no doubt handsome fees. It takes more time to study for a driver’s test than to rocket into space.

Bon voyage, Jeff! Have a safe flight.

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  1. allen

    From less than 20 years ago an HBO Lewis Black comedy special: “A father and two sons run Adelphia. It’s a cable company. And they took from that company a billion dollars. A billion. Three people – three people took a billion dollars. What were they gonna do, start their own space program? ‘Let’s send the monkey to Mars, Dad!’

    Wealth has accumulated so quickly into the hands of the 1% that this is now actually happening. It frankly sickens me to death. Even tho the first space race was entirely politically motivated against the soviets at least it was a semi-collective achievement led by the US government agency NASA and not some narcissistic billionaires playing god.

    1. Egidijus

      I’m still wondering if they are leaving us as trash on Earth or are very soon sending some of us as waste from “their” Earth.

        1. philnc

          Those “giant tubes” would be what were called “O’Neill cylinders”, after Gerard O’Neill, the NASA scientist who popularized the concept in the 1970s. Meant to be the way to a better life for millions of “space colonists”, with sophisticated environment systems and spin gravity. Also, enormously expensive. That expense, and the unavoidably impractible physical limits on migrating billions from earth to space (a running theme in Kim Stanley Robinson’s _Mars_ novels), led to the alternative space-as-escape-for-elites idea seen in the film _Ellysium_ (whose “happy” ending required re-activation of Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field to pull off).

    2. Keith

      Collective actions are generally politically motivated. Politics can be quite the motivated, especially when the majority of the collective doesn’t have anything to do aside chant USA USA or whatever group they choose to celebrate.

    1. Adam1

      It’s probably the best odds this year we’ll get to get rid of at least one socially disastrous sociopath!

  2. Carolinian

    Alex Cockburn once said anyone rich enough to own a helicopter should have the good sense not to fly in one. Of course they aren’t nearly as dangerous as space capsules but some rich and famous have perished in their choppers.

    Darwin Award?

    1. Tom_Doak

      I have been in a few helicopters over the years, and every time, I think, I’d better not push my luck too many more times. On two separate occasions, the pilots shared how a friend and great pilot had died in a crash. It’s like Formula One racing in the 1970’s.

    2. Darthbobber

      I was with an air cav troop for awhile, and I concur. Though most civilians don’t fly on a side-facing bench open to the air with just a web lap belt to keep from falling out.

  3. NotTimothyGeithner

    Sigh…I saw the article, unaware of the date of the launch, and thought this would be good news.

  4. Carolinian

    BTW for anyone who wants to know what’s involved in taking a Soyuz capsule there’s a great Eva Green movie called Proxima about a French woman astronaut. Lots of authentic detail.

  5. Wukchumni

    You know what I hate?

    When the space capsule you’re counting on turns out to be a cheap Shenzhen knockoff…

      1. rowlf

        Heart-punch me t! That was a good one.

        I’m hoping for the radio transmission “This is Jeff. I need to take a leak…”

  6. XXYY

    I would make the point that this flight is not “going into space” in the normal sense, i. e. achieving Earth orbit or beyond, which requires a rocket that, in addition to getting high enough to clear the atmosphere, can achieve tremendous horizontal velocity (about 17,000 mph) to “keep missing the Earth” as it falls back.

    This flight is evidently more like “going up really high and then hastily coming right back down.”

    100km is the usual (somewhat arbitrary) altitude at which rocketeers consider themselves to be in space; I don’t know if Bezos et al are going higher than that.

  7. Carolinian

    Right. They will experience some weightlessness but just from the fall back to Earth.

    I read a book about Yuri Gagarin’s amazing and amazingly dangerous first manned flight. They simply removed the atomic warhead from one of their big missiles and put a capsuled man instead. After he re-entered the atmosphere he had to eject from the capsule fighter pilot style and float down by parachute. Something did go wrong and it took a small while to find him.

    Perhaps Jeff will have an ejection seat. The others?…..

      1. ambrit

        And, of course, perhaps Jeff and Company will accidentally land somewhere in China, like the man before Gagarin, Ilyushin did
        I have come to seriously question the wikipedia as a reliable source of unbiased information. The entire concept of “crowdsourcing” leaves any endeavour managed along such lines wide open to ‘outside’ manipulation.
        Trust is essential, and is the ‘natural resource’ the most ‘depleted’ in recent times.

        1. Anders K

          Wikipedia is for the most part edited by the most interested party. The trick is to find the parts where that party is most interested in accuracy (usually small, niche stuff).

          For the manipulated stuff, consider Wikipedia to be an approximation of what “they” want you to think. It can be quite useful in that regard.

          1. Keith McClary

            The murky part is who decides what is a “Reliable Source”.
            They have a special rule: “Wikipedia articles on history and religion draw from a religion’s sacred texts as well as from modern archaeological, historical, and scientific sources.”, so they can pass off bible stories as the “History of Israel”.

    1. Tom_Doak

      Gagarin, unlike Alan Shepard who followed him, did complete one orbit of the earth, and not just a missile flight path.

      But Shepard got to hit a golf ball on the moon ten years later, so I’d call it even.

      1. The Rev Kev

        I thought that those golf balls would have gone for miles but they didn’t. ‘Based on data from the crew and a modern-day moon mission, the group found that the first ball traveled 24 yards (22 meters) and the second about 40 yards (37 m).’

        But in all fairness, those craters were just like bunkers. That golf club is now at the United States Golf Association museum in New Jersey.

        ‘That is one small put for a man…uhh.. one giant drive for mankind.’

    2. Darthbobber

      These guys resemble the early astronauts and cosmonauts much as the annual groups of Everest vanity climbers resemble Tensing and Hillary.

        1. Wukchumni

          They found Mallory 22 years ago on Mt Everest, because he was there.

          It killed the mystery of it all, kinda similar to if they located Amelia Earhart, she’d be forgotten fairly quick.

    3. The Rev Kev

      ‘They simply removed the atomic warhead from one of their big missiles and put a capsuled man instead.’

      Same with the American space program. The Atlas D missile used for Project Mercury was actually that – a missile. It was the only one in their arsenal that was fit for the job. That was all both sides had available-

      1. rowlf

        The Coda from the soundtrack of Soyuz 1 is a bit dark for me. I’ll probably spend a few cycles in hell for that one.

    1. curlydan

      I always think of these lyrics when the rich head to space:
      “You see men sailing on their ego trip,
      Blast off on their spaceship,
      Million miles from reality:
      No care for you, no care for me.”
      -Bob Marley, “So Much Trouble in the World”

      Although with Jeff Bezos, maybe I should add Marley’s “Crazy Baldheads” to the mix as well

    2. jsn

      Good Riddance

      This myopathy is
      neuropathy, and frankly
      I’m afraid we’re all half numb
      And it seems not a one of you
      is planning still
      for what’s yet left to come

      Your info graphs
      are pornographs, how shortsighted
      must you be?
      Your teleprompter’d demagogue
      pits you against reason
      and sanity

      By SpaceshipCaptain

  8. Jen

    I wonder who would sue whom if flight Bezos should take an unfortunate turn. Not that I’m hoping or anything, because that would be wrong….

    1. Tom_Doak

      Yeah, I think the heirs of these guys would probably manage to find ways to console themselves over inheriting all the money so much sooner than expected. They would only file suit to save face.

      Unless Amazon sued to get their founder’s estate back?

      1. tegnost

        Yeah, I think the heirs of these guys would probably manage to find ways to console themselves

        It’s hard to argue that it would be bad for the economy, so there’s that incentive….

    2. Thomas P

      If Amazon shares drop I’m sure share holders will sue for securities fraud. Everything is securities fraud, as Matt Levine likes to say.

  9. Josef K

    Best-case scenario: Ambot X72 mod0 aka the “Jeff Bezos” prototype gets returned to the mothership for re-programming. It was supposed to create an organization to _save_ Amazonia, not hasten its destruction. It’s amazing the amount of chaos just a few lines of bad code can wreak.

  10. FreeMarketApologist

    Blue Origin will be contributing that $4.8M to Club for the Future, although I see that Club for the Future was just designated in Feb 2021 as a tax exempt private foundation (EIN: 83-4350571), and appears to have done nothing yet to “inspire children to study science”. So they get to turn income into a tax deduction, and for what, exactly?

    Club for the Future’s contact is listed as Lorri Dunsmore, a lawyer for Perkins Coie, specializing in not-for-profits (though it’s not unusual for smaller foundations to have their lawyer or accountant listed as a key contact). Those of you interested in inspiring kids to study science might wish to write Ms. Dunsmore to inquire of the foundation’s plans (as a foundation, they will only need to spend 5% of assets/year on their mission, which can include operating expenses).

  11. The Rev Kev

    Just coming up with a little fantasy. So Jeff is being strapped into that rocket and the countdown is underway. He gets bored and talks with Mission Control because what else can he do. They happen to mention in the course of the conversation the fact that they thought that the mission was not going to go ahead and be scrubbed because they were behind in final preparations. It is then mentioned that somebody had the great idea to call in Amazon Fulfillment Center workers on their day off to help out and to get them over the line. And that for some reason they were very surely when they first turned up but when they found out what it was all for, that they got quite cheerful and helpful. Man, they were everywhere helping out and were all over that rocket. Such loyalty and devotion.

    1. pricklyone

      @Rev Kev, LOVE IT! Just an add to the fantasy.
      Mr. Bezos announces that all O-rings and other consumables on the project must be sourced by “Amazon Basics” items.

  12. Noone from Nowheresville

    It’s interesting to me that we’re willing to have people get rid of their cars / parking spaces and yet we say nothing about space tourism. Just think if this industry takes off how much fuel & resources will be used so some rich people can play and say look at me. How many cars would have to come off the roads to offset regular “space” flights? How many cars have to come off the roads to offset helicopters & private jets? No discussion of the whole environmental impact of flying that high into the atmosphere.

    I will admit that it would be fun to see a bunch of them sue each other. But only if the entire court proceedings including discovery & depositions were public in real time.

    1. Wukchumni

      Worry not concerned citizen!

      The Nation of Celestial Space will settle this overhead class struggle story to an equitable ending…

      The Nation of Celestial Space (also known as Celestia) is a micronation created by Evergreen Park, Illinois, resident James Thomas Mangan. Celestia comprised the entirety of “outer space”, which Mangan laid claim to on behalf of humanity to ensure that no one country might establish a political hegemony there. As “Founder and First Representative”, he registered this acquisition with the Recorder of Deeds and Titles of Cook County on January 1, 1949. At its foundation Celestia claimed to have 19 members, among them Mangan’s daughter Ruth; a decade later a booklet published by the group claimed that membership had grown to 19,057.

      Mangan was active for many years in pursuing his claims on behalf of Celestia; in 1949 he notified the United States, Soviet Union, United Kingdom and United Nations that Celestia had banned all further atmospheric nuclear tests. Later, as the space race got underway in earnest he sent angry letters of protest to the leaders of the Soviet Union and United States on the occasions that their early space flights encroached upon his “territory” – although he later waived these proscriptions to allow for satellite launches by the latter.

  13. The Rev Kev

    When talking about the insurance industry, I just found this comment over at The Register which is very insightful-

    ‘I remember my economics class at Oxford way back in the 70’s when the lecturer explained that the only difference between the insurance industries and the betting industries was that running an insurance business was more profitable because the risk of “losing” an insurance “bet” was non-existent. If you did lose money in an insurance contract (more than just one earthquake, hurricane etc) then you would recover your money from everyone who was unaffected by raising their premiums.’

    1. Oh

      That’s how the insurance crooks companies do it. If there are hail claims in your area, they’re quick to pay them off and then they raise the premiums for all insureds in the whole state!

  14. none

    I forget who said “if we can launch one billionaire into space, why not all of them?”.

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