Lost in space?
Don’t count on being rescued — by NASA or the Space Force, or even the company that built your private spaceship. At least not yet.
As dozens more people travel to orbit for days and even weeks — and hundreds are predicted to inhabit private stations or moon bases in the coming years — a rescue service will be needed for spacefarers in distress, say government advisers and industry insiders. But no such plans are currently in the works.
For the foreseeable future, private astronauts will travel at their own risk. Congress has barred the federal government from regulating the safety of human spaceflight until at least next October, as part of a hands-off approach intended to allow the industry to mature.
The lack of rescue capabilities is a gap that industry leaders and regulators say will have to be filled sooner rather than later — before government or private astronauts are stranded due to spacecraft malfunctions or accidents, require unanticipated medical help or run out of key supplies.
“It needs to be in place before we need it,” said Grant Cates, a senior engineering specialist at the government-funded Aerospace Corporation and a leading proponent of establishing a Space Rescue Service. “The time to put in place the capabilities is not the day that you suddenly discover you had to have it.”
One option being debated by industry officials and space researchers is a new government agency, possibly with similar search-and-rescue responsibilities to the Coast Guard, that could also address other growing space challenges, such as clearing dangerous debris from orbit.
Others would like to see an international agency or body akin to the one established to coordinate the rescue of submariners.
The United States agreed to help rescue astronauts of other nations when it joined the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, which states that “in carrying on activities in outer space and on celestial bodies, the astronauts of one State Party shall render all possible assistance to the astronauts of other State Parties.”
“We do have treaty obligations,” said Scott Pace, former executive secretary of the National Space Council and head of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute. “That means everybody, anybody out there.”
But some industry leaders are expressing concern about more government bureaucracy that could place unrealistic and costly demands on space companies.
“Where does the money come from?” asked Kursten O’Neill, vice president at Sierra Space, which is building the Dream Chaser space plane, at a discussion on the topic hosted by the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics last week. “This is more than just having a standby crew that’s trained to rescue humans.”
She said she sees the need for a rescue capability, but “there’s a whole infrastructure that requires significant capital to have rockets on standby and [to] have spacecraft on standby. To me, that’s going to require public-private partnership.”
O’Neill prefers giving the oversight role to a current agency, such as NASA or the Space Force, to make use of the skills and technology already available inside the government.
“How do we repurpose those different agencies to morph with the growing changes in space exploration, versus adding a new entity into how we regulate space exploration?” she said.
One promising model, several experts said, could be the Civil Reserve Air Fleet, in which commercial airlines help the military by supplying additional transportation in a crisis. In this case, federal or international agencies would enlist private spaceflight companies to respond to an in-orbit emergency.
“Government doesn’t necessarily put out up-front money,” said George Nield, former associate administrator of the FAA for commercial space transportation. “It doesn’t have to be a government agency who owns all the vehicles and trains and employs all the astronauts.”
He proposed that the government ask for volunteers to work the issue, and then give those companies priority in future contracts.
Yet Nield also sees the benefit of a government agency serving as a “focal point.”
What most agree on is that as space travel expands, the planning needs to begin now for a Space Rescue Service.
The Aerospace Corporation highlighted in a report last month what it called the “in-space rescue capability gap.”
It noted that seafaring explorers traditionally sailed with additional ships, and that the Apollo missions to the moon in the 1960s and 1970s included redundant capsules and crews that proved crucial in saving the Apollo 13 astronauts when their main spacecraft malfunctioned.
NASA also had rescue strategies in place for other particularly risky missions. Its first space station, Skylab, had rescue rockets and spacecraft on standby for in-orbit emergencies. The space agency also had plans to rescue the space shuttle astronauts if they were stranded on the International Space Station or while repairing the Hubble Space Telescope.
But “neither the U.S. government nor commercial spaceflight providers currently have plans in place to conduct a timely rescue of a crew from a distressed spacecraft in low Earth orbit or anywhere in space,” the Aerospace Corporation report concluded.
Yet growing numbers of private astronauts are already making multiday journeys into orbit. The first all-civilian crew traveled to space for nearly three days in 2021. In April, Axiom Space sent the first private crew to the International Space Station for more than 17 days.
“No government entity was overseeing that,” Nield said. “Unfortunately in the United States today, law and policy do not clearly identify who, if anyone, has that responsibility. There is no one who has the specific responsibility to oversee and regulate space safety during outer phases of flight.”
But the recent government-funded report insisted that “potential solutions are available and need to be established with a sense of urgency.”
A first step, it said, is ensuring all crewed spacecraft have common docking mechanisms so they can rendezvous in an emergency.
“The biggest challenge will be breaking down barriers to cooperation,” said Frederick Slane, executive director of the Space Infrastructure Foundation, particularly on the international level. “Historically those only come down after a disaster forces cooperation.”
But he said standardizing how commercial spacecraft interface, including how they are refueled, would be a major step in the right direction.
More ambitious measures would include ensuring the “timely availability of a rescue spacecraft or a … haven to escape to” in orbit, according to the Aerospace Corp. report.
O’Neill said the solution should be able to evolve as the space economy expands. “Do we eventually have a Space Rescue Service that lives in space and stays there?” she asked.
“You don’t have to do everything all at once,” Nield added. “But we do need to get serious about this now and not just continue to let it drag on in the future.”