Op-ed | Renewed U.S. Competitiveness in Space


Eric Stallmer is president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. 

There’s no question that the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry has grown considerably since the passage of the historic Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA) in 1984, which set the precedent for the private sector to make commercial spaceflight a reality. In recent weeks, Jeff Bezos’ company, Blue Origin, completed a test flight of its New Shepard vehicle out of Texas, and Elon Musk’s SpaceX demonstrated the pad abort capability for its Dragon capsule that will be ferrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station.

The commercial space sector is vital in contributing to our space industrial base, but the demonstrated growth and capabilities come with the need to readdress the regulatory framework for this sector. Without the proper regulatory environment, the United States will quickly fall behind international competitors also aiming for the stars.

Both the House and Senate introduced bipartisan bills this week to reauthorize the CSLA, which includes important provisions and policies that will continue to encourage growth in the commercial spaceflight industry and reduce the cost of access to space. At the same time, the legislation encourages the Department of Transportation, specifically the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, to work together with industry to develop a safe and effective environment to develop and test these vehicles before operations.

There are a number of provisions in the CSLA reauthorization that are critical to industry well-being, such as an extension of the learning period, government risk-sharing and permit flexibility.

The learning period exists to create a regulatory environment based on actual flight data rather than speculative analysis. While initial test flights of crewed suborbital vehicles began in 2013, regular operational flights have not yet begun. Additional time and data are required to determine the appropriate regulations to the industry. The CSLA reauthorization must extend the learning period, affording the commercial spaceflight industry the growth of innovation and the improvement of long-term safety based on flight data.

Since 1988, U.S. law has also included a third-party risk-sharing regime for FAA-licensed commercial space launches and re-entries, which allows American companies to compete more effectively with their foreign competitors. In fact, many other spacefaring nations have a similar, if not stronger, risk-sharing regime in place. Approved by many Congresses over the years, and most recently the vehicle in which fiscal year 2014’s omnibus spending bill was passed, this “indemnification” regime requires companies to buy commercial insurance or demonstrate available resources to cover a large portion of third-party damages up to an amount calculated by the FAA. In exchange, the secretary of transportation commits to seek funds to pay for third-party claims above that level, to a statutory cap if needed. However, no such claim has ever been triggered and the Congressional Budget Office has scored this risk-sharing regime as no cost to the government. With a strong U.S. risk-sharing regime, we can keep our commercial launch industry competitive with those overseas.

New Shepard
Blue Origin’s New Shepard crew capsule separates from the propulsion module during a test flight. Credit: Blue Origin

Permit flexibility is another component critical to the continued growth of the commercial spaceflight industry. Under the current law, as soon as a rocket design is licensed for spaceflight, it can no longer be flown under an experimental permit. However, there are many situations in which test flights might be necessary after a license has been granted. Both the FAA and the commercial industry license-holder should have the flexibility to take individual vehicles back and forth between licensed flight and experimental flight, as is currently possible with aircraft. As has been proved by the incredible test flights completed under experimental permits, such as Blue Origin’s flight to 93 kilometers April 29, the industry requires the flexibility to innovate and iterate.

The industry is rapidly expanding, and congressional leaders have recognized the importance of this sector’s growth and are committed to adopting policies that enable continued expansion — making commercial space a key part of their economic vision for America. The proposed House and Senate bills are exemplary of public-private partnership at its best, with industry working with government to preserve U.S. leadership in space, extend Earth’s economic sphere, and to create safe and reliable vehicles to reduce the cost of access to space. We look forward to working with government to achieve these goals, and we offer our strong support for the passage of a CSLA reauthorization bill.