WASHINGTON — The low-profile approach that the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office had taken to two launch accidents in less than a week has won praise from industry, but some worry the concurrent investigations may be putting a strain on the small office.
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) licensed the Oct. 28 launch of an Orbital Sciences Corp. Antares rocket that failed seconds after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia. AST also issued an experimental permit to Scaled Composites for test flights of SpaceShipTwo, which crashed Oct. 31 near Mojave, California, killing one of the vehicle’s two pilots and injuring the other.
AST is supporting the investigations of both accidents, but is not leading either. Orbital Sciences is leading its investigation of the Antares failure, establishing an accident investigation board Nov. 3 whose membership includes current and former NASA officials as well as company executives. The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) is leading the SpaceShipTwo investigation under terms of a memorandum of understanding with AST last updated in 2004.
AST’s work has, as a result, been behind the scenes, with Orbital and NTSB being the public faces of their respective investigations. However, those in industry familiar with those efforts complimented the agency for its efforts.
“They have done an excellent job given the resources they have available,” said Michael Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, which provides advice and recommendations to AST.
“I think what they’re doing is rational and reasonable,” Mark Sirangelo, corporate vice president and head of space systems for Sierra Nevada Corp., said of AST during a speech at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon Nov. 6. “I don’t think they’re disengaged, I think they’re letting the primary research and evaluation happen first. I think that’s the way it should be.”
Gold, though, was worried that the simultaneous investigations were stretching those resources thin. The office received $16 million for 2014, and the FAA requested $16.6 million for AST in its 2015 budget proposal. An appropriations bill approved by the Senate Appropriations Committee June 5 would fund the office at that higher level, but a similar bill passed by the full House of Representatives June 10 provides only $16 million for AST.
Gold said he and others in the commercial space transportation industry were worried before the recent launch failures about AST’s ability to keep up with a projected increase in orbital and suborbital launches given its flat budgets. “Resources and manpower were an issue prior to these accidents,” he said. “Those issues will be more acute going forward.”
Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, agreed with that assessment. “AST could use more resources,” he said in a Nov. 6 interview. “They’re doing a lot with less.”
FAA spokesman Hank Price, in a written response to questions Nov. 6, declined to specify how many of AST’s 81 staff members have been assigned to support the two investigations. “AST is devoting significant resources towards both its oversight of the Antares investigation with Orbital Sciences, and its support of the NTSB-led SpaceShipTwo investigation,” he said.
Price acknowledged that the investigations were putting a strain on AST’s resources. “The ongoing investigations have significantly intensified the demand on AST resources,” he said. “As necessary, we will prioritize our activities going forward to meet our public safety mandates.” Those mandates, he said, including support of investigations as well as oversight of licensed and permitted launches.
The SpaceShipTwo accident in particular opens the door for AST to develop new regulations for the industry. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 temporarily restricted the ability of AST to regulate the safety of people who fly on commercial launch vehicles.
The purpose of this restriction — what the industry has termed a “learning period” — was to allow vehicle developers to gain experience upon which regulations could later be based. This restriction was originally set to expire in December 2012, but an FAA authorization act passed in early 2012 extended it to October 1, 2015.
The learning period, however, is not a firm moratorium against regulations: The 2004 act allows AST to enact safety regulations in the event of a serious or fatal injury, or an unplanned event that carried a high risk of such an injury, during a licensed or permitted flight. The SpaceShipTwo accident now allows AST to develop such regulations, so long as they apply to design features or operating practices directly linked to the accident.
Prior to the SpaceShipTwo accident, some companies had been lobbying for an additional extension of the learning period, citing the limited flight experience of suborbital vehicle developers. Stallmer said he does not think the prospects for an extension are doomed despite the accident.
“The accident will help with the discussion about the learning period. The approach is the right one,” he said. He hoped Congress would ultimately approve an extension but was not sure by how many years.
However, industry officials acknowledge that over time they will be subject to additional regulations from AST. “I think we expected to have oversight,” Sirangelo said. “We fully expect that we’re going to get regulated.”
Gold noted that commercial launch providers already have to comply with AST regulations to avoid causing injuries or damage to third parties. Neither accident caused any injuries beyond the two SpaceShipTwo pilots.
“It’s important not to lose sight of the fact that no third parties were harmed,” he said of the two accidents. “The system is working.”
Staff writer Dan Leone contributed from Washington.