Updated Oct. 29 to correct Ligor’s affiliation.

LAS VEGAS — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial spaceflight office expects current restrictions on his ability to regulate safety of spaceflight participants to be extended past this year.

Speaking on a panel at AIAA’s ASCEND conference Oct. 25, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he anticipated the “learning period” to be extended beyond its current Jan. 1 expiration. The learning period limits the ability of the FAA to enact regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants on commercial spacecraft.

“We expect it will be pushed out further. How far out we don’t know,” he said, with different projections from different people.

A panel of industry witnesses endorsed another extension of the learning period at an Oct. 19 Senate hearing. They did not offer a consensus about how long it should be extended beyond it being several years, including one estimate of eight years.

One of those witnesses was Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, and he reiterated that recommendation on the ASCEND panel. “The flight rate is fairly low,” he explained, with a diversity of technical approaches. “I think it’s tough to put all of those pieces together.”

While there may be acceptance that the learning period will be extended, there was not agreement that it should. “A methodical, thoughtful approach to regulation is what’s needed,” said Doug Ligor of the RAND Corporation, which released a report in April that recommended Congress let the learning period expire. “You can do it without a moratorium.”

He went further, calling the learning period unnecessary in the first place. “The idea that you need a moratorium was suspect to us from the beginning,” he said, noting that such restrictions are not found in other industries. “The moratorium was an aberration.”

Industry officials countered that ending the learning period now might disrupt ongoing discussions about what future regulations should look like. “I think we are doing everything that we need to be doing to ensure that we are moving forward in a productive fashion, and allowing the learning period to end prematurely could risk that productive cooperation,” said Mary Guenther, vice president of space policy at the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry organization.

That cooperation includes the creation by the FAA earlier this year of a space-focused aerospace rulemaking committee, or SpARC, on developing regulations for occupant safety. That committee includes representatives from industry and other organizations.

Coleman said he hoped the SpARC will consider when it will be appropriate to move away from the current “informed consent” approach where spaceflight participants must be informed of the risks of commercial vehicles and sign documents acknowledging those risks.

“The time is now to think about that while the flight rate is relatively low,” he said. “We don’t want to get into a higher flight rate and then have a bad day and a mad scramble to regulate. That’s a poor way of approaching it. The window is open now and we must take advantage of it.”

If there is an accident, he warned, “I think we’re kidding ourselves if we don’t think questions will come in like, ‘Why didn’t the FAA do more? Why was not more in place?’”

Gerstenmaier countered that informed consent was important, drawing upon his experience at NASA leading its human spaceflight programs. “Informed consent needs to remain there because the risktaker need to accept that risk for themselves,” he said. He noted that, at SpaceX, he has had people “walk away from contracts because I described to them what the risk was associated with the vehicle.”

He did, though, support the FAA’s creation of the SpARC on regulations. “This is absolutely the right time to start the SpARC activity. There’s going to be regulations coming somewhere in the future,” he said. “We’re working very cooperatively and working really hard in the SpARC activity to put together those thoughts on what the next set of regulations ought to be.”

“I think that’s just a brilliant step forward in terms of putting the stakeholders together,” Guenther said of the SpARC. “We all want regulations in the future that ensure that we are able to continue to innovate, that we are all moving forward in maintaining our global leadership.”

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...