FAA Says Safety Report Doesn’t Reflect Plans to Regulate Human Spaceflight

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WASHINGTON — A U.S. Federal Aviation Administration official says a new report on commercial human spaceflight safety is intended to support the development of standards by industry and is not part of an effort to impose regulations on this emerging field.

The Aug. 27 report by FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, titled “Recommended Practices for Human Space Flight Occupant Safety,” provides safety guidelines both suborbital and orbital crewed vehicles. The 56-page document covers aspects of the design, manufacturing, and operations of such vehicles.

“The future of the commercial human spaceflight industry will depend on its ability to continually improve its safety performance,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at a meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here Sept. 17. “What is the best way for government and industry to work together the cause of spaceflight safety?”

The report, he said, came out of a three-year effort that involved discussions with COMSTAC members, the FAA’s Civil Aerospace Medical Institute and its Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. The FAA based the report on requirements developed by NASA for its commercial crew program.

“The primary purpose is to facilitate ongoing safety discussions among government, industry, and academia,” Nield said. The report “provides a framework that space vehicle developers and operators may find useful in preparing industry consensus standards.”

The guidelines address top-level safety issues, such as maintaining adequate atmospheric conditions inside a vehicle, without recommending specific designs or numerical safety levels. That, Nield said, reflects the diversity of vehicle designs proposed by companies for suborbital and orbital vehicles. “Establishing a single level of risk may inadvertently limit innovation,” he said.

One issue not included in the report is any medical criteria for passengers, or spaceflight participants, of commercial vehicles. “Spaceflight participants should be free to make their own decisions about individual risk,” in consultation with vehicle operators, Nield said.

The report comes as the FAA and industry are debating when the government should begin regulating the safety of occupants of commercial vehicles. A provision in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 temporarily restricts the ability of the FAA to enact safety regulations except in the case of accidents that caused serious or fatal injuries, or incidents that posed a “high risk” of such injuries.

In the original act, that provision was set to expire in December 2012, eight years after the bill became law. However, an FAA authorization bill passed in early 2012 extended the deadline to Oct. 1, 2015. Industry sought that extension of what it calls a “learning period” because of delays in the development of commercial vehicles, limiting the flight experience upon which future regulations could be based.

Nield noted that some have requested a further extension of the deadline, which could be considered in an update to the overall Commercial Space Launch Act that Congress plans to take up early next year. In the past, Nield has argued against an extension, but at COMSTAC, he emphasized that the report does not represent a plan by the FAA to enact regulations if and when the learning period expires.

“Even after it does expire, we have no current plan to initiate a rulemaking effort on human spaceflight,” he said, promoting instead the development of standards by industry organizations. “The next move is really up to industry.”

However, the report itself states that “the document may serve as a starting point for a future rulemaking project, should there be a need for such an effort at some point in the future.”