Editorial | Responding to SpaceShipTwo Tragedy

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Oftentimes it takes a serious incident to bring related underlying issues into stark relief, and this looks to be the case with the Oct. 31 fatal mishap involving Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

This has nothing to do with the cause of the accident, which is the subject of a U.S. National Transportation Safety Board-led investigation that could take the better part of a year. This concerns the response, in particular by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, which regulates the U.S. commercial launch and spaceflight industries.

Coupled with the Oct. 28 failure of Orbital Sciences Corp.’s Antares rocket on a commercial resupply flight to the international space station, the SpaceShipTwo accident has exposed funding issues at AST. Although the office is not leading either failure investigation — Orbital is leading the Antares probe — its supporting role in both is stretching its resources thin. 

Under the continuing resolution that funds federal activities at prior-year levels until Dec. 11, the AST is spending at a rate based on an annual budget of $16 million. The FAA requested a $16.6 million budget for the office in 2015, and while Senate appropriators have approved that amount, the House has proposed keeping it at the $16 million level.

Congress in recent years has resisted the funding increases that AST officials say are necessary as the office deals with the revival of the U.S. commercial launch industry — which all but disappeared in the early 2000s — and expands its regulatory mission to cover the launch and re-entry of passenger-carrying vehicles. The back-to-back mishaps are a wakeup call to anyone who still doubted that the commercial spaceflight industry is real and questioned the AST’s need for more money.

The SpaceShipTwo accident also triggers the AST’s the authority to begin drafting safety regulations for the emerging industry under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. The law, designed to provide a pro-growth environment for the young industry, grants aspiring space tourism companies a regulatory grace period of eight years — it has since been extended to October 2015 — to give them a chance to build a foundation of vehicle testing experience that in turn could inform the rulemaking process.  

But the law also allows the AST to step in if there’s an accident involving a fatality, serious injury or high risk of either, provided that the resulting regulations are limited to the causes of the mishap.

Clearly the AST needs to wait until the NTSB presents the results of its investigation before drafting any such safety rules. 

In the same vein, it was surprising to hear that Virgin Galactic intends to continue with construction of a second SpaceShipTwo vehicle with an eye toward resuming test flights in six months. Although the NTSB has raised the possibility that human error played a role in the mishap, it has not ruled out a design or mechanical issue with SpaceShipTwo.

Virgin Galactic is understandably eager to minimize additional delays to the introduction of commercial service and to demonstrate its resolve, but pressing ahead with construction — and perhaps even flight tests — while the investigation is still underway could prove problematic. One could argue that if Virgin Galactic wants to bet on SpaceShipTwo’s exoneration that’s its own business. But in doing so the company risks fueling doubts about the commercial spaceflight industry’s commitment to safety, which could invite the types of regulations it has sought to avoid, or at least defer.

That said, the AST should tread lightly in recognition of the industry’s novelty and fragility. While it can never compromise when it comes to protecting uninvolved third parties, the office also must recognize that those who are willing to pay for the thrill of going to the edge of space are risk takers by both nature and choice — this is not commercial aviation.

The possibility of fatal accidents in commercial spaceflight has always been foreseen by anyone familiar with the difficulty it entails. Now that one has occurred, albeit perhaps sooner than some might have expected, prudence dictates a deliberative and cautious response from all parties that doesn’t exacerbate the blow that the industry has already suffered.