Editorial: An Extended Grace Period for Commercial Spaceflight

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Congress did the right thing in extending by 33 months the period during which aspiring U.S. space tourism companies will be exempt from certain government-imposed safety requirements.

The extension was necessary because these commercial services are taking longer than expected to develop. While various companies continue to make progress with vehicles designed to carry paying passengers into suborbital space, and perhaps one day into orbit, the global economy is still shaky; now is not the time to hamstring the fledgling industry with regulatory uncertainty.

The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004 originally was scheduled to sunset in December but with the extension will remain in effect through September 2015. The legislative vehicle for the timely action was the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, formally known as the FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012, which was signed into law by U.S. President Barack Obama Feb. 14.

The CSLAA was intended to give the commercial spaceflight industry time to get on its feet without regulatory burdens beyond those necessary to protect uninvolved third parties against mishaps. The measure does permit the FAA to impose passenger safety rules, but only in cases where an operator experiences a mishap or a close call, and the regulations must be specific to that incident.

At the time of its original passage, the expectation was that several space tourism vehicles would be up and flying by 2012, thereby providing a base of experience to inform the FAA’s passenger-safety rulemaking process. That was not an unreasonable assumption given that SpaceShipOne, the rocketship designed by Scaled Composites and bankrolled by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen, made two suborbital flights within two weeks in 2004 to win the $10 million Ansari X Prize.

But high-tech vehicles almost invariably encounter developmental delays, even if backed by deep-pocketed investors. The follow-on SpaceShipTwo vehicle, designed to carry paying passengers to suborbital space for Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic venture, is setting the pace for the space tourism industry but has yet to make its first powered flight. That flight, which will not carry any paying passengers, is expected to take place around the end of the year. Other companies, such as Blue Origin and XCOR Aerospace, also are making demonstrable progress flight-testing their vehicles.

It seems very likely that Virgin Galactic, which boasts $58 million in deposits from 455 passengers to date, will be well into commercial operations before the extended CSLAA window closes. That’s harder to say about the other space tourism hopefuls, which is why an eight-year extension, as originally proposed by the House, would have been preferable — it will be difficult for FAA regulators to compile an industry-wide set of best practices based on the experience of a single company. That means the CSLAA probably will have to be extended again come 2015.

That said, the fact that a divided Congress that has had difficulty getting things done in recent years was able to come to agreement on the FAA reauthorization bill is encouraging, especially in an election year. The space tourism regulatory provision was perhaps less than an afterthought to most of those who negotiated and voted on the bill, but thankfully enough members were sufficiently attuned to this small but increasingly important sector of the commercial space industry to get it into the bill. Those lawmakers are to be commended.