This week's launch of SpaceX, scheduled to become the first nongovernmental spacecraft to service the International Space Station, ushered in a new era for both commercial space travel and the out-of-this-world insurance coverage it takes to get it off the ground.
The unmanned capsule entered earth's orbit Tuesday from Cape Canaveral Air Force Base in Florida with a payload that reportedly includes the ashes of Mercury astronaut Gordon Cooper and actor James Doohan, who portrayed Scotty in the "Star Trek" TV series. Their ashes are among 308 space-bound remains hitching a ride to the great beyond under a contract with Celestis, a Texas company that offers "memorial spaceflights."
In 2010, SpaceX became the first commercial spacecraft to successfully complete a round trip into space, making it the likely successor to NASA's retired space shuttle fleet.
If all goes well in predocking tests, ISS flight engineer Donald Pettit will rein in the SpaceX cargo ship with the station's robotic arm this morning and guide it to the docking bay. Over the coming week, the ISS crew will unload 1,300 pounds of food, clothing and pantry items and pack aboard completed scientific experiments and equipment. SpaceX is scheduled to detach from the ISS on May 31 and parachute back to earth off the coast of California.
Who insures SpaceX, and for how much? So far, SpaceX isn't saying, but you can bet it's not the same company that provides your homeowners insurance (though many policies do cover damage from space debris).
NASA spokesman Joshua Byerly tells Insurance Journal that the required third-party liability coverage for SpaceX, which is governed by the Federal Aviation Administration, is calculated based on "maximum probable loss."
"These values are defined and agreed to between the FAA and SpaceX," Byerly said via email. "NASA does not have any insurance requirements. We have cross waivers of liability negotiated in our Space Act Agreements and cargo contracts, which covers the terms between NASA, SpaceX and our International Partners. NASA also self-insures our cargo."
Meeting even the most astronomical insurance premiums should be no problem for SpaceX, the closely held Hawthorne, Calif.-based company founded by South African-born billionaire Elon Musk. SpaceX holds a $1.6 billion contract with NASA to provide at least 12 unmanned cargo missions to the ISS through 2015.
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