Opinion | Building a bright regulatory future for the commercial space industry
As a founder and chief technology officer of a U.S. commercial spaceflight company, I’m proud to live in a country that openly supports and encourages innovation through action. In that regard, the Federal Aviation Administration has been a key collaborator, supporter and enabler of the commercial human spaceflight industry. They’ve expertly implemented the current legal framework that fosters innovation and promotes progress, ensuring both U.S. leadership on a global stage and a favorable climate for private investment and calculated risk taking. But as U.S. companies inch closer to commercial operation and our industry evolves, so too must our regulatory framework.
The human spaceflight regulatory regime that governs large segments of our industry has limitations on the FAA’s ability to issue new regulations intended to ensure occupant safety. Because these limitations, under what is known as the “learning period,” are due to expire in 2023, there is an unintended consequence of legal and fiscal uncertainty. I testified June 22 at a hearing of the House aviation subcommittee to propose a new and, I believe, improved regulatory framework that addresses this issue, and offers up a solution that will help foster the future success of our industry.
My company, World View, is developing and operating balloon-based vehicles that fly at the edge of space. Like an ice cube floating on water, our vehicles float on top of Earth’s atmosphere, using lift from the balloon to hoist an eight-person spacecraft to the edge of space where passengers (tourists and scientists) will take in breathtaking views of the curvature of the Earth against the blackness of space, communicate with people on the ground, conduct research, and more.
World View’s operations, like those of Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and other suborbital flight providers, are regulated by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Specifically, spaceflight operations involving humans are regulated under a regime based on the participants being informed of the risks of flight and then consenting to those risks. These regulations provide extensive protection of the uninvolved public, protection of property and safe integration into the national airspace system.
This “informed consent” regime, as it’s called, ingeniously fosters innovation, technology development and investment by creating a market for tourists, researchers and astronauts to fly in space. It mirrors the regulations that govern other tourism-related activities involving a certain amount of risk, like skydiving, paragliding and scuba diving. Those activities require waivers and releases, and members of the public have the right and freedom to voluntarily engage in activities where they believe the benefits outweigh the informed risks.
That’s a regulatory environment the commercial spaceflight industry can and should mirror into perpetuity. However, as long as the existing “learning period” is not permanent, there will continue to be uncertainty about what the future regulatory regime will look like. The idea behind the learning period was that a time will come when the entire commercial human spaceflight industry should be transitioned as a whole to a regime in which the safety of a spaceflight participant is more heavily regulated.
Two observations indicate that such a transition could be harmful to the industry. First, the industry is not one unified block where all companies will be ready for such a transition at the same time. We see new companies and technologies continuing to enter the market, like the recent successes of Blue Origin. Second, the current regime, with limitations on the FAA issuing new occupant safety regulations, is working. It is successfully enabling a new industry and should be made permanent. This regime is, in fact, creating an opportunity for space tourism and research that should not be subject to impending termination.
That being said, as an industry leader we at World View absolutely understand and agree with the long-standing vision of helping the commercial space industry evolve into routine operational status that mirrors the success and safety of the commercial airline industry. That’s a future we all want. And that’s why I proposed a two-tiered regulatory regime to Congress: one that permanently extends the current regime (using a “License”), and one that includes more robust regulations for spaceflight participant safety, based on the specific function or purpose of the flight, using something I’m calling an “Extended License.”
There should always be a regime with minimal regulations for passengers participating in spaceflight where the destination is space itself (i.e., purely a tourism or leisure-related activity.) This would mirror the skydiving or scuba diving industry, where participants are made aware of certain risks and accept those risks. However, an Extended License regime would be required for operations that constitute common carriage under FAA regulations. For example, Virgin Galactic could offer regular one-hour service from New York to Sydney under an Extended License. But for services whose destination is space itself, common carriage does not apply and the current License protecting the public, property and the national airspace is appropriate.
Tourism companies could voluntarily graduate to an Extended License, where the safety of occupants is regulated. I expect an Extended License would garner a competitive advantage to operators. Having that stamp of approval, even for activities where space itself is the destination, would be incredibly valuable. But we should allow those operators to seek that Extended License stamp of approval when they deem it necessary and favorable.
It’s in the government’s best interest to maintain our country’s leadership in aerospace by creating a permanent and stable, yet flexible, regulatory system. This type of parallel regulatory framework will do just that. In my testimony in June, I urged Congress to seriously consider and eventually adopt just such a regime. Doing so will continue to fuel the growth of our industry for decades to come.
Taber MacCallum is the co-founder and chief technology officer of World View.