Insurance for Astronauts

by Adam Bishop on September 12, 2009

Risk in Space.

Popular Mechanics has an interesting article on the subject of NASA and risk aversion.  It seems that pushing the limits of human endeavour might be at odds with preservation of life.  Finding new frontiers, it seems, is a bit risky.

The unsuspecting shuttle Discovery astronauts, led by pilot Kevin Ford (L) and Cmdr. Rick Sturckow (R) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

The unsuspecting shuttle Discovery astronauts, led by pilot Kevin Ford (L) and Cmdr. Rick Sturckow (R) at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

Well you could have blown me down with a feather.

Aerospace pioneer Burt Rutan bluntly put it like this: “if we’re not killing people, we’re not pushing hard enough”.

That make me wonder… are astronauts insured?

Well, as you might imagine, the answer to this question varies from astronaut to cosmonaut (!) and from era to era.

During the 60s and 70s it would appear that private life insurance was not available to astronauts.  Autograph Magazine has a good post about how astronauts of the time used their own autographs as a form of life insurance for their families.

An astronaut 'life insurance card', autograph from the early space era.

An astronaut 'life insurance card', autograph from the early space era.

In 2003, space shuttle Columbia disintegrated during re-entry over Texas on its 28th mission, killing all seven crew members.  At the time Los Angeles Times stated that NASA had no special insurance for the astronauts.  NASA spokeswoman Eileen Hawley was quoted as saying “There is a limit on what type of benefits the federal government provides,” though the article also states that “Five of the astronauts were members of the U.S. military and eligible for coverage under service members group life insurance, which has a standard death benefit of $250,000. The monthly premium ranges from $20 for the maximum coverage to 80 cents for a reduced coverage of $10,000. There is no increased payment for military members if the death is work-related. ”

In 2007, several Australian newspapers including this one, ran articles on NASA’s secret payout of $US26.6 million to the families of seven astronauts who died aboard space shuttle Columbia.  ”Two astronaut families ordered preflight insurance policies through NASA, but the agency failed to obtain the additional coverage before the accident.”

The same article attests that the Canadian Space Agency purchases $3 million to $5 million insurance policies before each flight for all of its astronauts.

The only broadly authoritative work we’ve seen on the subject of insurance in space was by the vice president of the International Space Brokers, as found here on the UNESCO website.  The PDF document describes third party liability both on the ground and during in-orbit operations, and even space tourism: as more of us start to venture out into the void, perhaps this is a subject we’ll be discussing more often.

So in brief, perhaps risks to – and caused by – space explorers are covered to some extent.  And perhaps NASA are becoming progressively more risk averse.

Nevertheless, in space it seems, no one will cover your pre-existing medical condition.

If you liked this article, leave a comment below!  Feel free to ask questions.  You may also like to read why the world needs asteroid insurance!

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