Starship SN8 liftoff
SpaceX's Starship SN8 vehicle lifting off on its December 2020 test flight. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — A House aviation subcommittee hearing on commercial space transportation June 16 plowed familiar ground, revisiting a wide range of issues that have yet to be resolved.

One of the few new topics addressed at the hearing by the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee dealt with the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to SpaceX’s violation of its launch license during the December launch of its Starship SN8 prototype. SpaceX conducted that suborbital flight despite weather conditions that violated the “far field blast overpressure” limits of its license to protect the uninvolved public.

The FAA briefly halted Starship tests, requiring SpaceX to perform an investigation and make corrective actions, the agency said in February. The FAA imposed no other penalties on the company.

That prompted a March 25 letter from Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chairs of the full House Transportation Committee and its space subcommittee, respectively, to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, expressing their disappointment “that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action.”

At the hearing, DeFazio asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the letter. Monteith said his office was satisfied with how SpaceX addressed the violation of its launch license.

“We would not have cleared them to start flight operations again had I not been confident that they had modified their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw” on the SN8 launch, he said.

Despite the hearing’s title, “Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight,” SpaceX was not among the witnesses. An industry source said that the company had not been invited to testify.

One industry witness who did appear was Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of United Launch Alliance. “It is vital that Congress provides FAA the support it needs to conduct effective oversight and enforcement of the licensing process,” he said in his opening statement. “Responsible operators will comply with FAA regulations and license. Those who do not should face enforcement and impactful consequences.”

Dual mandates and dueling committees

Much of the hearing, which lasted for more than two hours, along with a two-hour recess because of votes on the House floor, reviewed long-standing issues about regulation of commercial spaceflight and the activities of the FAA.

DeFazio, a longtime critic of the FAA’s “dual mandate” to both regulate and promote the commercial space transportation industry, reiterated his desire to end that mandate. “NASA can promote commercial space, the Commerce Department can promote it, whomever,” he said, vowing to introduce legislation to end that dual mandate. “It is not up to the FAA to promote commercial space and regulate it at the same time.”

Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, said the last review of the FAA’s dual mandate in commercial space transportation was in 2008. The Department of Transportation concluded at that time “there was no compelling reason to remove the promotional role for FAA through 2012,” she said. However, while that report recommended periodic reviews, there had been none since then. “Another review may be warranted.”

Monteith said while there has been no formal review of the dual mandate, the FAA does examine the issue more informally. “Everything is based on safety,” he said of his office’s work, noting its “encourage, facilitate and promote” role doesn’t extend to activities like marketing.

Committee members also discussed the integration of space launches and reentries into the national airspace system. That became a hot topic in 2018, when the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blocked airspace off the Florida coast for several hours on a weekday afternoon, rerouting hundreds of airline flights.

The commercial aviation and launch industries have since worked to better coordinate such activities, although not to the satisfaction of members like DeFazio, who said he was opposed to telling airline passengers that their flights were being delayed “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

He pressed Monteith on the slow progress on a project called the Space Data Integrator, which is intended to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, reducing the size and duration of airspace restrictions. That project has been in development for several years.

Monteith said there was no specific timeline for bringing the Space Data Integrator into full operation, although operational tests are scheduled to begin in the next few months. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

Projected growth in launch activity in the next several years is also expediting work on better integration of launches into the national airspace system. “The FAA must build upon a pattern of collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors,” said Capt. Joe DePete, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), at the hearing. “ALPA believes that, now more than ever, the FAA, industry and labor can work together to create a national space integration strategy.”

A third familiar issue at the hearing involved the so-called “learning period,” which restricts the FAA’s ability to enact regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants, so that industry could build up enough experience to serve as the basis for such regulations. The learning period was established in a 2004 commercial space launch bill and originally intended to last for eight years. It has since been extended several times because of a lack of commercial human spaceflight activity, most recently to 2023.

Rep. Garret Graves (R-La.), ranking member of the aviation subcommittee, suggested it’s time to consider yet another extension of the learning period. “Congress will need to decide whether to extend the learning period, let it lapse or find an alternative policy solution,” he said.

Mike Moses, president of space missions and safety at Virgin Galactic, argued an extension of the learning period would be warranted. “The industry is still in its early days, and more time is needed to have informed discussions on what the regulatory framework should look like in the future to support human spaceflight,” he said. “Extending the learning period would allow these discussions to take place in Congress, in partnership with industry and the FAA.”

This hearing is not the first time that the House Transportation Committee has examined commercial space transportation. It’s held hearings every couple of years over the last several years on the topic but has taken little action beyond those hearings.

That is, at least in part, because commercial space transportation lies in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. While the hearing was in progress, Reps. Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) and Brian Babin (R-Texas), ranking members of the full House Science Committee and its space subcommittee, released a letter they sent to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on commercial spaceflight.

The letter noted that the original Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 was prepared by the House Science Committee, as well as commercial launch bills in 2004 and 2015. Those bills “were drafted by committee leadership and solely referred to the committee,” they wrote in the letter.

Larsen acknowledged at the hearing that space was outside of the jurisdiction of his committee, but that its effects on airspace made it relevant. “We do not believe that we have jurisdiction over space, but you have to travel through airspace to get to space, what I like to think of as ‘our space,’” he said. “This is why this hearing is so critically important.”

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...