NASA Wants Feedback on Liability Issues with Sending Private Astronauts to Space

Sergey Nivens/

The space agency is seeking additional feedback on the insurance and accountability issues that accompany bringing commercial astronauts to the International Space Station.

With sights set on powering short-duration private astronaut missions, or PAMs, to the International Space Station in the near future, NASA wants insurance, launch service and other interested providers and stakeholders to weigh in on the legal- and accountability-check it’s crafted to govern the trips.

The space agency on Wednesday extended the deadline for responses to a recent request for information soliciting feedback on its newly proposed Private Astronaut Mission Liability Framework. Originally set for July 18, interested parties now have until Sept. 1 to respond.

“NASA may use the results of this RFI to modify the proposed liability framework, to guide an assessment of appropriate insurance amounts and types of insurance required, or to otherwise inform the development of the implementation approach with respect to PAMs generally and liability framework for such missions in particular,” officials wrote in the request.

As part of a broad, multifaceted scheme to promote commercial activity in the low Earth orbit—deemed NASA's Vision for Low-Earth Orbit Economy and unveiled in June 2019—the agency hopes to enable privately-funded commercial spaceflights through which private astronauts can “conduct approved commercial and marketing activities on the space station (or in a commercial segment attached to the station),” according to an announcement of the plans. In June, Virgin Galactic revealed it signed a Space Act Agreement to produce a “new private orbital astronaut readiness program” for NASA, which would incorporate “identifying candidates interested in purchasing private astronaut missions to the ISS, the procurement of transportation to the ISS, on-orbit resources, and ground resources.”

In the RFI, NASA specifically outlines—and solicits insights on—its liability framework for PAMs, as well as its “perceived impact on the goals set forth” in its newly created vision.

Under the proposed framework, upon entering into an agreement with a PAM provider, NASA will set requirements that must be met in regards to training, performing proximity operations and docking with the ISS, living and working on the facility, liability, and other applicable terms. The agency will solely contract with the PAM provider, not individual astronauts or contract workers. And on each mission, only commercial astronauts will be carried to space—government astronauts will not participate. 

Among a range of other assumptions and proposed requirements, the agency notes that the PAM provider must obtain insurance for liability coverage through all phases of the missions, government property and damage, claims for third parties and insurance for property loss and loss of life—all in to-be-decided amounts—and the entity must require each private astronaut to obtain their own life insurance. Other clauses around indemnification, informed consent, and flow-down technical requirements are also included.

Responders are invited to share their views of the overall framework and anything that should be included or omitted. NASA also asks for insights on the potential impact executing the framework would have one stakeholders’ business plans, insurance products that are readily available and reasonably appropriate to support the effort, and more. 

“For all feedback, NASA is interested in understanding the underlying basis for the feedback, and in particular on the perceived impact on the goals set forth in NASA’s Vision for Economic Development in LEO,” officials wrote.