FAA and NTSB discussing roles in commercial spaceflight investigations

by

WASHINGTON — Two federal agencies in a turf battle over commercial spaceflight investigations say they are now talking with each other to better define their roles and responsibilities.

The National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) triggered the debate when it published a notice of proposed rulemaking in November 2021 to codify the role it would take in investigating accidents involving commercial launches and reentries.

Companies in the industry widely criticized the proposal, saying it duplicated existing regulations at the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial launches and reentries. The FAA also criticized the proposal, calling on the NTSB to instead work with the FAA to update an existing memorandum of agreement (MOA) between the agencies.

In an April 6 letter to President Joe Biden, the chair and ranking member of the House Science Committee, Reps. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) and Frank Lucas (R-Okla.), called the proposed NTSB rule “plainly unlawful” and urged the administration to withdraw it. The letter came after committee staff previously complained that the NTSB declined to respond to earlier inquiries about the proposal.

The NTSB did respond this letter. In a May 5 letter to Johnson, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, said the board was meeting with both the FAA and with industry “to seek clarity on the concerns that stakeholders have identified in their comments” as part of its reviews of the public comments submitted in response to the proposed rule.

She added that the NTSB would not immediately move to a final rule, something it could have done after reviewing comments to the proposed rule. “We are seriously considering all the comments we received, and we anticipate proceeding to a supplemental [notice of proposed rulemaking] as our next step, which will be available for public comment,” she wrote.

Homendy added that FAA and NTSB officials met in April to discuss potential updates to the MOA, which NTSB argues are needed to reflect changes in the industry like commercial human spaceflight. A second meeting is scheduled for May 11, she said, and that both an updated MOA and the “eventual” NTSB regulations “will clarify the roles and responsibilities of each agency, providing a framework for operators when an investigation is necessary.”

At the May 3 meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Kelvin Coleman, FAA acting associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said the FAA has had “good conversations” with the NTSB on updating the MOA. “So far, so good,” he said. “Chair Homendy has been very gracious and very accommodating working with the FAA on that, so I think that’s moving well.”

At the COMSTAC meeting May 4, Joel Graham, a member of the staff of the Senate Commerce Committee, said he also welcomed the discussions between the agencies on updating the MOA on commercial spaceflight investigations. “That is what we wanted to see happen,” he said. “We don’t want one agency charging off in one direction and ignoring the other. This has to be a collaborative effort. It has to be a multiagency effort.”