FAA, Commercial Spaceflight Industry Far Apart on Timing of Safety Rules

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LONG BEACH, Calif. — As Congress mulls changes that would relax a ban on U.S. federal regulation of passenger safety on commercial spaceflights, one industry executive here came down hard in favor of the current hands-off approach.

Reauthorization legislation signed in 2012 extended a provision barring the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation from writing commercial spaceflight passenger safety rules until October 2015, unless there is a major accident before then. Industry says this grace period prevents extensive regulation of never-before-flown systems from bogging down an already expensive and lengthy development process.

That hands-off mandate “should be extended indefinitely,” Jeff Greason, founder of commercial spaceflight hopeful XCOR Aerospace, said April 1 during a panel discussion at the 2014 Space Tech Expo conference here. 

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The grace, or learning, period was first introduced in 2004 — the year suborbital tourism line Virgin Galactic was founded — as an amendment to the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act. At the time, expectations — fueled by the successful back-to-back suborbital flights of the piloted SpaceShipOne rocket plane — were that commercial passenger service to suborbital space would materialize in short order. 

But the nascent industry has yet to launch a single paying customer. If the FAA writes safety regulations under those conditions — in other words, without a record of passenger flights to study — the agency would be “making [stuff] up,” Greason said. 

Greason, however, made clear he does not oppose the FAA’s longstanding authority to protect the uninvolved public from commercial launch mishaps, or determine how much insurance commercial operators must carry.

Greason’s fellow panelists included Ann Zulkosky, a staffer to the Senate Commerce science and space subcommittee, which has legislative jurisdiction over the Commercial Space Launch Act and has been reviewing possible changes for the past year. While members have yet to reach consensus on those changes, she said, “the one thing they do all agree with is that … the current legislation is limiting FAA’s ability to even be involved in the [safety] conversation.” 

Citing conversations with FAA lawyers, Zulkosky said the law as written prohibits the agency from applying even the lightest regulatory touch. For example, she said, FAA officials may not participate in industry-led discussions about safety or critique a draft list of best practices released last year by the FAA’s industry-led Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.

XCOR tentatively plans to begin piloted test flights later this year, Greason said. Some of the hardware for the company’s two-seater Lynx suborbital spaceplane has arrived at the factory and is awaiting integration. The required FAA clearance for these flights, he said, is also in the works.

Meanwhile, Virgin Galactic expects to begin revenue-generating flights of its seven-passenger SpaceShipTwo later this year following a midsummer suborbital test flight. As of March, about 700 people had signed up for a rocket-powered trip to suborbital space with Virgin.

Under the same law that bars the FAA from regulating the nascent suborbital tourism business, all who sign up for SpaceShipTwo or Lynx flights do so at their own risk in what is known as an informed consent regime. 

The head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, meanwhile, is looking forward to the day when the informed consent regime is replaced. During a Feb. 5 hearing of the House Science space subcommittee, George Nield said industry’s recent plea for a longer learning period — one that continues for eight years beyond the first FAA-licensed flight — ignores government expertise about crewed space systems gathered by NASA’s long-running human exploration program.

It would be “irresponsible” to ignore the lessons from those programs and force regulators to collect a new set of data from commercial companies, Nield said.

Nield and the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee will have the chance to debate the issue again May 7-8, when the committee is next scheduled to meet in Washington. 

In the meantime, industry is collectively bracing for the day the FAA begins writing passenger safety regulations, former astronaut Michael López-Alegría, head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said during the panel discussion.

“One day, whether it’s October 2015, or some time later, [the learning period] will end,” López-Alegría said. “And we need to be as prepared as possible for that day.”

 

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