International Suborbital Safety Proposal Gets Cold Shoulder in U.S.

by

WASHINGTON — A proposed set of human suborbital safety guidelines developed by an international working group received a generally negative reaction from U.S. companies and organizations involved with such vehicles.

The guidelines, developed by the Suborbital Safety Technical Committee of the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety (IAASS) during the last three years, provide recommendations on the overall safety levels of such vehicles, as well as more specific technical and regulatory recommendations. The guidelines build upon earlier work on orbital spaceflight safety standards by the IAASS.

The guidelines represent an effort to harmonize the different regulatory philosophies between the U.S., where suborbital vehicles are licensed as launch vehicles, and Europe, where regulators have proposed certifying such vehicles like aircraft. Such harmonization, proponents argue, could make it easier for vehicles developed in one country to operate in other countries.

“It is, in part, an attempt to square the circle” between the European and U.S. regulatory approaches, said Chuck Lauer, vice president of business development for Rocketplane Global, a company that has previously worked on suborbital vehicles. Lauer, a member of the IAASS committee, discussed the proposed guidelines at a meeting of the Systems Working Group of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here May 7.

One key aspect of the guidelines is that it sets what it calls an “acceptable level of safety” for people flying those flights, with the odds of a catastrophic failure of 1 in 10,000. By comparison, current FAA regulations do not set a risk standard for vehicles themselves, instead setting limits on the risk posed to the uninvolved public.

The committee recently completed a draft of the standards and delivered it to the board of IAASS, Lauer said, and will be on the agenda of the organization’s next conference in October. That committee, Lauer acknowledged, has been dominated by European participants. “What I would like to do is to bring the members of COMSTAC and the American industry into this discussion,” he said. 

Those members at the May 7 meeting, though, expressed little support for the IAASS guidelines. “It’s fundamentally wrongheaded,” said Jeff Greason, chief executive officer of XCOR Aerospace, a company developing the Lynx suborbital spaceplane. He argued it was unwise to establish safety standards through theoretical analyses rather than flight experience. “I don’t think it’s right or healthy for the development of the industry to start touting these analyses as a level of safety we can achieve before we’ve achieved it.”

“It just seems wildly premature to be throwing out numbers like 1 in 10,000 when we have no idea if any of that is feasible,” said Michael Lopez-Alegria, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. He noted companies actively developing suborbital vehicles, including Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, are not part of the IAASS committee. “It doesn’t seem right to have people who are just thinking about stuff, who are more in the PowerPoint stage than the bending metal stage, to be creating this system that, if adopted, could be very burdensome.”

The IAASS guidelines come as industry and the FAA debate when and how safety on board commercial spacecraft should be regulated. Current law limits the FAA’s ability to enact such regulations, except in the event of an accident or close call, so that companies could develop flight experience upon which to base regulations. That provision was originally set to expire in 2012, but was later extended to October 2015.

George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, wants the moratorium to expire in 2015 but only so his office has the flexibility to impose rules if necessary. “Our office does not have a stack of proposed regulations in the files that we’re waiting to spring on you once the moratorium expires,” he said. “In fact, I can’t think of any specific human spaceflight requirements that are necessary and appropriate to put out as regulations at the present time.”