Guest Blogger Tracey L. Knutson on Rocketplane’s Space Tourism Candy Wrapper Spaceflight Contest

August 1, 2008 at 9:26 am | Posted in Space Law Current Events | 1 Comment

by Tracey L. Knutson, guest blogger

Tracey L. Knutson is a licensed attorney in Anchorage, Alaska whose primary practice involves working with recreation and adventure sports commercial operators, public land administrators and recreation oriented educational groups. An experienced trial lawyer, Tracey defends recreation companies and sports groups from liability claims, often negotiating pretrial conclusions that minimize time and expense. In addition, she provides risk management and training services.

Tracey’s belief, when it comes to recreational endeavors, is that risk and opportunity exist simultaneously. Learning how to maximize the opportunities in your recreational endeavors by minimizing or mitigating the risks is a key component of operating a quality adventure sport or recreational endeavor or business.

Assuming movies are art, it looks like life is imitating art again. The recent story of a French air hostess winning a competition to become one of Europe’s pioneer space tourists after buying a Kit Kat chocolate bar with a specially marked wrapper is ‘deliciously’ like Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory – no? Recall the famous 1970s movie with Gene Wilder (remade in 2005 with Johnny Depp) about the eccentric and elusive candy maker operating a magical candy factory which was the subject of some considerable mystery and fantasy and the lessons the visiting children learn in the factory and the parallels are remarkable.
As the Wonka story goes, 5 children including a common and poor boy named Charlie Bucket win tickets printed on the wrappers of chocolate bars entitling them to a fantastic voyage through the enigmatic and mysterious chocolate factory – a place of enchantment and dread – a place where freedom and danger are entwined. In what was supposed to be an opportunity to win a huge prize – a lifetime’s supply of chocolate – the risks and hazards of the voyage for these 5 kids end up outweighing the goal as one by one each of the children except Charlie encounter hazards and booby traps resulting in their disappearances along the way. The simple message of the Wonka story is that kids who don’t listen to the express warnings of the unconventional and idiosyncratic factory owner can get into big trouble.

So it will be for Mathilde Epron, the French woman who purchased a chocolate bar with a winning ticket on the wrapper – a ticket that will entitle her to a fantastical voyage of her own. Ms. Epron will need to be very aware of what the risks of this journey really are – and like the kids in the chocolate factory – she will need to be responsible for herself in deciding if the goal of early suborbital space travel is worth encountering those risks. And, Ms. Epron , if properly warned about the risks of space travel, will need to understand that whatever hazards or booby traps she encounters along the way will become her responsibility and she will suffer or enjoy the consequences accordingly.

Ms. Epron was, a mere few days ago, simply an air hostess, and today she is a potential “space flight participant.” While it was Willy Wonka and the Oompah Loompas reciting rhyming parental warnings that informed the kids of risks in the movie, in real life Ms. Epron will need to listen carefully to what the commercial spaceflight operator – Rocketplane XP and its sponsor Nestle – tell her about the risks of their operation and she will be required under U.S. law to provide written informed consent prior to embarking on her adventure. Most notably – Ms. Epron needs to understand her role in the decision making process is equally important and as critical the space flight operator’s duty to provide the warnings and to obtain her informed consent. The operator will provide the hardware, the technology, the warnings, all of that kind of thing. Ms. Epron has to come home to her own realization that going to suborbital space in the early era of this industry is worth doing, that she really wants to – literally – risk everything to undertake this activity. She will to have to critically decide that she feels confident that she wants to do this. Under the law surrounding adventure activities in the US (this is what Congress has called the emerging commercial human space flight industry at this point in time – an adventure activity) the duties between an operator and a participant run both ways. Both parties have to act reasonably in whatever situation they find themselves. At this moment in time, when everything is so new and so experimental, the best thing that a SFP (here, Ms. Epron) can do is to decide for themselves that this is nobody else’s responsibility, that they have to decide for themselves that this thing is worth doing. Ms. Epron needs to be confident enough in the machinery or in the relationship with the operator or in the whole endeavor that she is willing to assume the risks. The best piece of advice that I could give Ms. Epron is to really get her head around the idea that it is her own responsibility to decide whether she wants to take the risk; whether early commercial human space flight is safe or not and whether she is willing to give it all up for this one opportunity. While the eccentric characters, the fantasy of space flight, the allure of dark space and winning a fantastic voyage after buying a chocolate bar are amusingly like Willy Wonka, in the chocolate factory even when four of the children meet fates appropriate to their failures to abide by the various warnings (IE – one child is suctioned up by a giant chocolate conduit and another is sucked down a garbage disposer) the fact is the children are simply expelled from the factory and are not truly lost. In space travel – failure to understand the risks and agree to abide by the warnings will not be simply a cautionary tale. The MSNBC version of the Epron story reports that Ms. Epron was told that if the Rocketplane XP spaceship was not ready to travel by 2011, then Nestle would pay out a substitute prize of $233,000. Once Ms. Epron has received a full set of warnings, I wonder whether she will be rooting for a timely take off on Rocketplane XP’s developing space vehicle?

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