"There are going to be fatalities," said Michael Kelly, a member of a group that is setting industry safety standards for space fliers. "It's a risky business. ... In the early days of personal spaceflight this is not transportation, this is adventure."
Kelly and other space tourism boosters, appearing Wednesday before a House panel considering regulations for the new industry, said the inevitable accidents will provide valuable lessons, comparing it to the early failures that preceded the development of commercial aviation.
"If you see Burt Rutan as being like the Wright brothers in this industry ... what we have before us is what existed before aircraft were developed in the early 1900s," said Virgin Galactic President Will Whitehorn, referring to the designer of the privately financed manned rocket that shot into space over California's Mojave Desert in October.
The flight of Rutan's SpaceShipOne to nab the $10 million Ansari X Prize energized the quest for commercial human spaceflight. Congress passed legislation in December creating the first regulatory framework for sending paying passengers into space, and Virgin Galactic and at least one other company are already taking reservations.
As long as Congress doesn't try to enact unwieldy safety regulations, out-of-this-world vacations could be widely available within two decades, industry officials told a hearing of the House Infrastructure and Transportation's aviation subcommittee.
"It's reasonable to expect that by 2025 ... that this part of our industry will have developed to the point where there could potentially be many, many of these launches," said John W. Douglass, head of Aerospace Industries Association of America.
At that point, industry officials envision spacecraft regulated by the Federal Aviation Administration much as airplanes are now, and utilizing the same air traffic control system.
But for now, under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, the FAA must wait eight years to issue regulations to protect the safety of passengers and crew, unless a serious safety problem, injury or death occurs before then. The agency may issue regulations to protect the non-flying public.
FAA Administrator Marion Blakey said those rules are enough for now, agreeing that government oversight of commercial space entrepreneurs must evolve along with the industry.
"It was more than 20 years after the Wright brothers' first flight before government regulations concerning aviation were put into place," she said.
Space entrepreneurs formed a group last month called the Industry Consensus Standards Organization to set their own safety standards for space fliers.
But some Democrats, led by Rep. James Oberstar of Minnesota, want more guarantees. Oberstar, the Transportation Committee's top Democrat, tried unsuccessfully to get tougher safety standards in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act. He renewed his push this week with a bill that would require the FAA to write minimum safety and health standards for spacecraft passengers and crew.
"We need at least a framework of safety around commercial space travel," he said at the hearing.
Industry officials told him they didn't object to his language, but said they were best positioned to set their own rules and had every incentive to aim for safety.
Virgin Galactic, a company of Richard Branson's Virgin Group, has a deal with Rutan for five of his spacecraft to begin taking passengers on 2½-hour trips in 2008. Seats will be $200,000 each.
"Given that we've got 18,000 people who've now approached us wishing to fly in the early years, and given that they read like a textbook of Hollywood, Congress itself, and international stardom, we're hardly likely to launch spaceflights which would kill these people," Whitehorn said.