Washington, D.C. – The status and future of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry and the role of the Federal Aviation Administration in providing safety oversight of the industry will be topics of a Congressional oversight hearing on Wednesday.

The hearing by the U.S. House Aviation Subcommittee, chaired by U.S. Rep. John L. Mica (R-FL), is scheduled to begin at 2 p.m. on Wednesday, February 9th 2167 Rayburn House Office Building.  A live video broadcast of the hearing will be available at the Committee’s website:


Wednesday’s Witness List

  • Honorable Marion C. Blakey, Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration
  • John Douglass, President and CEO, Aerospace Industries Association
  • Michael Kelly, Chairman, Reusable Launch Vehicle Working Group, Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC)
  • Lou Gomez, Program Manager, Southwest Regional Spaceport, New Mexico
  • Will Whitehorn, President, Virgin Galactic

Background Information

Prior to the early 1980’s, there was no commercial space transportation industry – the United States launched commercial satellites on vehicles owned by the government.  However, several events during the 1980’s prompted the development of this industry, including the creation of a European commercial launch services organization and the ban of commercial payloads (i.e. satellites) from flying aboard the Space Shuttle after the Challenger disaster.

By the year 2002, U.S. commercial space transportation and the services and industries it enables accounted for more than $95 billion in economic activity, in addition to providing many benefits to public consumers (i.e. DirecTV and satellite radio).

FAA’s Role In Commercial Space Transportation

In 1984, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Act to encourage the development of the emerging commercial space launch industry and to facilitate compliance with Federal requirements.  The Act created a licensing mechanism to enable quick and efficient compliance with existing Federal regulations.

Additionally, licensing oversight was consolidated into the newly established Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) in the Department of Transportation (DOT).  In 1995, the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) was transferred to the FAA.  It is the only office within the FAA authorized to oversee and regulate the commercial space launch industry.

AST is responsible for regulating launches conducted by private companies in the United States.  AST’s mission is to make sure commercial launch activities do not harm public interests, including safety of the public and property as well as U.S. national security and foreign policy interests.  AST’s mandate is also to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation and the United States space transportation infrastructure.

AST issues launch licenses for commercial launches of orbital rockets and suborbital rockets, and licenses the operations of non-federal launch sites, or “spaceports”.

In December 2004, Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (P.L. 108-492), making a number of changes to the 1984 Act.  Under the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, the FAA is authorized to regulate the industry primarily to protect the uninvolved public and the public interest.  For the next eight years, the agency can regulate space vehicles to ensure crew and passenger safety only if the operation of those vehicles result in death, serious injury or a dangerous close call.  After 2012, the FAA may regulate space vehicles as it sees fit.  The Act passed in the House under suspension of the rules on November 20, 2004 (269 – 120).

Development Of The Commercial Space Transportation Industry

Until October 2004, all commercial space launch vehicles were unmanned expendable vehicles.  However, similar to the barn-storming activities in early commercial aviation, supporters of the commercial space transportation industry have created competitions to encourage further developments, particularly in the area of manned commercial space flights. 

The first major Commercial Space Transportation Prize encouraging the development of a manned commercial space launch vehicle was the Ansari X Prize, which awarded a $10 million purse to the victor.  An annual X Prize event will begin in 2006, and another contest has been announced that will award a team that can successfully take people into orbit.

Commercial space tourism is the next step on the road to regularly-scheduled, manned commercial space flights.  Space tourism will initially be available to a limited number of wealthy adventurers.  Later, commercial space transportation could include point-to-point commercial space flight services, rapid global transportation, commercial spaceports, and space hotels. 

The infrastructure requirements of the emerging commercial space transportation industry are also under development.  Commercial spaceports have been licensed or are under development at locations throughout the United States.  Licensed spaceports currently support unmanned launches and testing operations for manned flights.  Plans are in the works to support space tourism with resorts and training facilities located on or near spaceports.  To date, the FAA has licensed four commercial launch facilities, in California, Florida, Virginia and Alaska.

Other issues facing an emerging commercial space transportation industry, include:

  • Safety oversight;
  • International competition;
  • Environmental impact analysis and mitigation if appropriate;
  • Labor laws;
  • Security of launch facilities; and
  •  Impact on air traffic control and the safe and efficient use of the navigable airspace.

For additional information, access the Transportation & Infrastructure Committee website at: