TORONTO — The upcoming launch of NASA’s first Orion spacecraft features an unusually complex regulatory environment, including the use of commercial launch and re-entry licenses and risk levels several times higher than normally allowed.

A United Launch Alliance Delta 4 Heavy rocket is scheduled to launch the Orion spacecraft Dec. 4 from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on a mission called Exploration Flight Test (EFT)-1. Orion will make two orbits of Earth before performing a high-speed re-entry over the Pacific Ocean, splashing down off the coast of Baja California, Mexico.

While NASA considers EFT-1 a key test of the Orion spacecraft, the mission is actually the responsibility of Lockheed Martin Space Systems, the Denver-based prime contractor for Orion, which contracted with ULA for the Delta 4 Heavy launch. Because of that arrangement, EFT-1 requires both a commercial launch license and a commercial re-entry license from the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s very complex from a technical and regulatory standpoint,” Paul Wilde, technical adviser in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said in a presentation at the 65th International Astronautical Congress here Oct. 2. “This is not a NASA mission per se in that NASA does not conduct the mission, but NASA pays for the data.”

Complicating the licensing process is the mission’s unusual profile. After placing the Orion spacecraft into orbit, the Delta 4 Heavy’s second stage performs a second burn to put Orion into an elliptical orbit with a peak altitude of 5,800 kilometers. The stage will then separate from Orion and perform a final burn to make a targeted re-entry over the Pacific Ocean.

That flight profile creates risks on the ground should the second stage malfunction in one of those additional maneuvers. “If we have a failure, debris is going to be spread over a very long and skinny area,” Wilde said, with a footprint as far as 2,000 kilometers.

The FAA assesses risk by calculating the expected casualties, or Ec, to third parties based on potential launch or re-entry failures and their likelihood. For a commercial launch license, the FAA sets a limit of 30 expected casualties per million launches. The FAA uses the same limit for a commercial re-entry license, which includes the risks of both launch and re-entry.

However, ULA calculated that the expected casualty risk from the EFT-1 launch would be 164 per million launches, with the second stage re-entry accounting for most of that risk. Lockheed Martin, in its separate re-entry license application, calculated an expected casualty risk of 165 per million flights, taking into account the launch as well as the small additional risk from the Orion capsule re-entry.

The unique nature of the mission made it impossible to lower the expected casualty risk. “It was really not possible to modify the mission to reduce the risks any further with the objective of the mission being to achieve as high a speed of re-entry as possible,” Wilde said.

Both companies requested a waiver of that expected casualty limit in their license applications, which the FAA granted this year. In its approval of the waiver, published in the Federal Register in March, the FAA cited the U.S. government’s experience in safely launching missions with even higher expected casualty risk levels, including 200 per million launches for the space shuttle.

“We demonstrated the waiver was in the public interest, and will not jeopardize public health and safety,” Wilde said.

Despite the elevated overall risk, Wilde said it was unlikely that any accident would cause significant damage or injuries because of how the stage would break up during re-entry. “There are relatively few pieces that could produce multiple casualties,” he said. Those pieces, he added, would be spread over a very large area.

Those risks are reflected in the FAA’s calculations of maximum probable loss (MPL), the amount of potential third-party damages that the companies must insure against as a condition of their licenses. The FAA calculated an MPL of $56 million for the EFT-1 launch license and $18.75 million for the re-entry license. The average MPL for commercial launch and re-entry licenses in 2012 was $82 million, according to a report published by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in February 2014.

Twitter: @jeff_foust



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Jeff Foust has more than a decade of experience writing about space policy, entrepreneurial ventures and regulatory affairs. In 2001, he established to aggregate and summarize the day's space-related news stories. In 2003, he started The...