FAA NTSB signing
FAA Acting Administrator Billy Nolen (seated, left) and NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy sign a new memorandum of agreement on commercial space investigations announced Sept. 9. Kelvin Coleman, new FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, is standing second from left. Credit: NTSB

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration and the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) have signed a new agreement outlining their roles investigating commercial space accidents.

The agencies announced Sept. 9 that they signed a new memorandum of agreement, updating one signed 22 years ago. The agreement outlines the roles and responsibilities of the agencies in the event of a commercial spaceflight mishap

Under the agreement, the NTSB will be the lead agency for investigating mishaps that involve a fatality or serious injury as well as those that involve damage to property outside the launch site “from debris that could reasonably be expected to cause death or serious injury.” The FAA will lead all other commercial spaceflight investigations.

“So far in commercial space we’ve established a great safety record: 550 operations licensed, with none resulting in public death or injury, but we know we need to keep focusing on that safety record,” said Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation, at a meeting of the National Space Council Sept. 9 at NASA’s Johnson Space Center.

She then announced the new agreement between the FAA and NTSB. “We are strengthening the interagency partnerships,” she said. The new agreement “clarifies each organization’s responsibilities investigating commercial launch and reentry safety events.”

The new agreement comes after NTSB proposed new rules in November 2021 that would give it a larger role in investigating commercial spaceflight accidents. The commercial launch industry, as well as the FAA, opposed the proposal, saying the rules would duplicate the FAA’s existing work to investigate accidents.

After members of the House Science Committee asked the White House to instruct the NTSB to withdraw the proposal, NTSB Chair Jennifer Homendy said it was working with both the FAA and industry to address their concerns. She added that the board would use the comments it received to publish a supplemental proposal for public comment, rather than go directly to a final rule.

“This agreement is proof that the federal government can keep pace with the exciting advances taking place in the private sector while also prioritizing safety as we enter a new space age,” Homendy said in a statement.

“This agreement reflects our shared goal to ensure a safe, robust and vibrant U.S. commercial space industry,” said Billy Nolen, acting FAA administrator. “This will help us ensure that safety lessons learned move into the operation as quickly and seamlessly as possible.”

The FAA also announced Sept. 9 that Kelvin Coleman, who has been serving as acting associate administrator for commercial space transportation since the retirement of Wayne Monteith in March, will take over the position on a permanent basis. Coleman has been with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, known as AST, in leadership roles for more than 25 years, most recently as deputy associate administrator.

Coleman is highly regarded in the commercial space industry and his promotion won praise. “Kelvin is singularly qualified to lead the AST,” said Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire Space and a former chair of AST’s advisory group, the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

“He has been a long-time advocate for commercial growth and innovation while maintaining a strong focus on safety,” Gold added. “Kelvin will ensure that government and the private sector work together to benefit the U.S. and the world.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...