U.S. Spaceflight Regulatory Chief Eager To Begin Rulemaking Process

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WASHINGTON — The chief U.S. regulator for commercial spaceflight told lawmakers Feb. 4 he wants to start making rules governing paid passenger flights sooner than some in industry would prefer.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), under reauthorization legislation signed in February 2012, is barred from writing detailed safety regulations for commercial human spaceflight until October 2015, unless there is a serious accident in the industry before then.

The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (Comstac), an industry-led group that advises AST, wants more time. The group recommended last year that AST delay rule-making until eight years after the first licensed U.S. commercial human spaceflight.

But AST Associate Administrator George Nield thinks that is too long to wait.

“The U.S. has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” Nield said here at a hearing of the House Science space subcommittee. “It’s true that none of those carried a spaceflight participant who actually bought a ticket, but as far as I’m concerned, the design and the operation of those vehicles really were independent of who was riding onboard.”

To back up his case, Nield recounted a quick history of U.S. crewed missions, from the experimental X-15 rocketplane that took the first U.S. astronauts on parabolic flights to the edge of space through the decades-long space shuttle program that ended in July 2011 after 135 missions.

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 at the hearing, which took place only a day before Comstac members met for the group’s annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference, held here Feb. 5-6.

Among Comstac’s members is Steve Isakowitz, president for Virgin Galactic, which expects to stage its first passenger-carrying flight to the edge of space later this year aboard its SpaceShipTwo rocketship. XCOR Aerospace, a Mojave, Calif., company planning to offer similar thrill rides starting as soon as 2015, is owned by one of Comstac’s most vocal members, Jeff Greason.

Neither Virgin nor XCOR has the AST license it needs to fly paying customers. Virgin applied for its commercial operating license in August and says that leaves plenty of time to begin flying customers in 2014. Flight testing of Virgin’s SpaceShipTwo vehicle are being conducted by supplier Scaled Composites under an experimental permit from AST.

The hearing was called to examine possible updates to the 1984 Commercial Space Launch Act, which also covers commercial satellite launches. The law was overhauled in 2004 — the same year Virgin Galactic was founded.

Among other things, the law includes rules for determining how much insurance companies must carry for commercial satellite launches. It also includes an indemnity provision, under which the federal government takes responsibility for damages arising from a catastrophic commercial launch accident that exceed the launch provider’s insurance coverage. Under the current indemnity shield, which on Jan. 17 was extended through 2016, the United States would cover damages up to about $2.5 billion, once insurance coverage was exhausted.

The indemnity shield has drawn attention from some Democratic lawmakers, notably Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.), the ranking member of the House Science space subcommittee. Late last year, Edwards opposed the three-year extension of the shield, proposing a one-year extension and calling for hearings to re-examine the practice.

“Should we be laying the ground for a shift to an insurance-based regime?” Edwards asked at the Feb. 4 hearing.

A self-described space supporter, Edwards nonetheless said “there are a number of questions that remain outstanding in this growing industry that need to be answered, and issues that need to be resolved.”

With a three-year launch-indemnity shield in place, “we have the time for a thorough and thoughtful examination of these questions, and I look forward to our subcommittee conducting further hearings to address them,” Edwards said.