WASHINGTON — The FAA office that licenses U.S. commercial space launches is set to eliminate a paperwork obstacle SpaceX had to negotiate in order to tote a couple dozen tag-along student experiments on a 2012 cargo run to the International Space Station.

Among the cargo to be loaded into SpaceX’s Dragon capsule for that supply run were NanoRacks standardized pallets — essentially powered boxes that slot into empty racks on station — hosting student-designed experiments NASA put on the flight as part of its Student Spaceflight Experiments Program.

The experiments included spiders, infectious bacteria and mutated nematodes, but the nastiest thing bundled up with the NanoRacks hardware, for SpaceX, anyway, turned out to be a provision in U.S. launch liability law that required the company to collect signed liability cross-waivers from anybody who owned a payload on the flight.

There were 23 student experiments on the flight, representing the efforts of more than 100 U.S. elementary, middle, and high school students. That put SpaceX on the hook for at least one signed cross-waiver per experiment, and possibly more, depending on whether the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation chose to count each participating student as a payload owner, as the current law allows.

For the October 2012 resupply flight, SpaceX  was able to avoid collecting student signatures by requesting a partial waiver, which public records show the FAA granted. Since then, NASA’s other commercial cargo hauler, Orbital Sciences Corp. of Dulles, Virginia, has also availed itself of the waiver-to-the-waiver option, according to FAA records.

However, U.S. launch providers asked for a permanent fix, which they now appear poised to receive. On Jan. 13, FAA proposed changing the cross-waiver rule so that commercial launch providers would require signed liability waivers only from their direct customers.

“Issuing a waiver is costly and time-consuming to the FAA, while requesting a waiver is costly and time-consuming for industry,” FAA wrote in its notice of proposed rule making. “These changes would result in cost savings to the licensee, government and customers and minimal cost to any customer in a direct contractual relationship with the licensee,”

If FAA’s proposed changes were in effect for the Dragon’s October 2012 supply run, SpaceX would have needed a cross-waiver from NASA — the company’s primary customer for the mission —  but NASA would have been responsible for getting waivers from NanoRacks and the students.

Neither NanoRacks spokeswoman Abby Dickes nor NASA spokesman Joshua Buck had any comment about the proposed rule change.

On the other hand, SpaceX would still have had to get a waiver from another passenger on the Falcon 9 rocket that launched the NASA mission: Orbcomm of Fort Lee, New Jersey. SpaceX sold Orbcomm a slot on the rocket for the experimental OG2 machine-to-machine messaging satellite, so SpaceX would be responsible under both the current and proposed rule for collecting Orbcomm’s cross-waiver, according to FAA.

Before FAA’s proposed rule can become a final rule, the agency must wait out a 60-day public comment period that closes March 13. Afterward, if FAA still believes the proposal would benefit the government and those it regulates, the agency may finalize the rule. Final rules typically go into effect 30 days after they are published in the federal register.

In a Jan. 12 email, Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee chartered by FAA to provide industry advice about commercial space policies, said the proposed rule change “ is one small step for cross-waivers, one giant leap for commonsense.”


Dan Leone is a SpaceNews staff writer, covering NASA, NOAA and a growing number of entrepreneurial space companies. He earned a bachelor’s degree in public communications from the American University in Washington.