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UK Perspective on Informed Consent in Commercial Space Travel

Alex Simmonds explains how his current research around commercial space travel and informed consent has directly impacted the new Space Industry Regulations 2021.

By Alex Simmonds, Lecturer in Law

‘The UK Perspective on Informed Consent in Commercial Space Travel’, (2020), 45, Air and Space Law, Issue 4, pp. 367-390

It was a pleasure to present my paper ‘The UK Perspective on Informed Consent in Commercial Space Travel’  at the Annual SLS Conference 2021.

The paper was written following the first piece of Space-related legislation in the UK for over 30 years, the Space Industry Act 2018. This Act hugely expands upon existing legislation and the government hope that it will set the framework for space activities from within the UK over the next 20 years. Whilst this may seem far-fetched, there are numerous plans for new ‘space ports’ across the UK including in Cornwall, the Sheltand Islands and Sutherland in the far north of Scotland. Interest has also been shown by a number of major contractors in this field such as Lockheed Martin and Orbex. There were also two (excuse the pun) high profile examples of commercial spaceflight over the summer as Richard Branson and Jeff Bezos undertook brief suborbital flights demonstrating the present state of technology in this area as far as commercial space tourism is concerned.

The particular section I focused on was s17 on ‘informed consent’ of individuals taking part in space activities. Essentially the rule states that an individual wishing to participate in spaceflight must signify their consent by explicitly acknowledging the huge potential for danger that exists in what would be regarded as an experimental launch. The term ‘informed consent’ is not defined in the Act so my paper explored definitions of this term that have arisen in the medical context and which could potentially shape any judicial decision in this area. Recent case law in this area could be problematic for a number of reasons. Firstly, the context is generally very different, secondly the standard of the ‘reasonable patient’ would have to become ‘the reasonable space flight participant’ and thirdly ‘bombarding’ a patient with highly technical information could lead to consent being vitiated. In the context of any commercial space endeavour embarked upon by a lay individual, the amount of technical information associated with any such risk is likely to be voluminous and highly technical. Giving a lay person such a large amount of complex information could appear to be ‘bombardment’. This is at odds with the United States approach which appears to be the opposite – tell the participant ‘everything’.

This aspect of the Act was later consulted on in the development of the new Space Industry Regulations 2021 by the Department for Transport. The proposals were that a Space Flight participant be given all the information on which they would give their consent 12 hours before the flight. Submitting my paper as evidence I argued that 24 hours would be more appropriate so as to avoid any such ‘bombardment’ of the participant.

I was delighted to learn that my advice in this respect was taken on board by the Department for Transport who changed this time period from 12 – 24 hours in the draft regulations. The new regulations came into force in July and the 24 hour period is now enshrined in law under Regulation 213.

You can find out more about Alex’s research through his Pure profile, which sets out her research interests, publications, and contact details. You can also find out more about Coventry University’s research through our dedicated research pages.

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