The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has unveiled a special permit aimed at helping the reusable suborbital rocket industry grow, while speeding up the development of passenger-carrying spaceships.

The “experimental-class” permit rules were unveiled May 26 at an open meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee at the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Headquarters in Washington.

“We’re hoping that this allows the reusable launch vehicle developers to build their vehicles and start flying without too much regulatory burden,” said Randy Repcheck, Deputy Manager in AST’s Systems Engineering and Training Division. He is the team leader on the experimental permit project.

“That’s the goal of these guidelines. We’re protecting public health and safety, but we’re trying to do so in a reduced manner so that reusable launch vehicle developers can go out and fly,” Repcheck said.

The guidelines were drafted by the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST), the only space-related organization within the FAA, which is part of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

U.S. President George W. Bush signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. That act advances the development of the emerging commercial space flight industry and makes the Department of Transportation and the FAA responsible for regulating private human spaceflight.

The space launch amendments established , among other functions, an experimental permit regime for developmental reusable suborbital rockets. Before the amendments to the Commercial Space Launch Act were approved, a license was the only mechanism available to the FAA to approve a launch or re-entry. Now an experimental permit may be used.

The guidelines fulfill the FAA’s requirement to provide direction on the implementation of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act with respect to experimental permits before issuing regulations. The guidelines are not binding, and until regulations called for in the amendments act are issued, the FAA will issue permits on a case-by-case basis.

In part, the FAA “Guidelines for Experimental Permits for Reusable Suborbital Rockets” apply to a person or organization proposing to launch or re-enter a reusable suborbital rocket solely for the following reasons:

  • Conducting research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment or new operating techniques;
  • Showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license; or
  • Crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or re-entry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued.

The FAA also has to determine that an applicant is capable of conducting its proposed launch or re-entry without jeopardizing public health and safety, the safety of property, or any national security or foreign policy interest of the United States.

The new rules are set up so that the FAA can issue an experimental permit authorizing an unlimited number of launches or re-entries for a particular suborbital rocket design. One permit may be issued to an applicant to operate multiple vehicles of a particular reusable suborbital rocket design.

The FAA will identify in the experimental permit the type of changes that the “permittee” may make to the reusable suborbital rocket design without invalidating the permit.

The duration of an experimental permit will be one year from the date the permit is issued, but they also will be renewable.

The guidelines, Repcheck said, permit reusable launch vehicle developers to collect data helpful in obtaining a license to start flying paying customers. The experimental-class permits are to be available until the final regulations are issued.

That final rulemaking will, by law, be issued in late June 2006. There will be a notice of proposed rulemaking issued in December of this year, open to the public and industry for comment, Repcheck noted.

“The FAA and AST recognize that this is an emerging field, much like in the days of barnstorming,” said FAA spokesman Hank Price. “We need to have in mind ways to help this industry grow and to emerge … and that’s the balance we think we’re achieving here. Protecting the uninvolved public but also helping this industry to grow.”

Repcheck said there’s always a challenge in writing regulations and attempting to please different constituents, be they the public, industry and the safety community. “We’re trying to bridge all of those … bridging the airplane world with the rocket world,” he said.

“It seems to be a moment in history,” Repcheck concluded. “We certainly hope it is. That’s what we’re all hoping for here.”

Speaking prior to release of the guidelines, Patricia Grace Smith, AST’s associate administrator, said the intent of the rules are to give space launch vehicle developers the ability to experiment and test their vehicles in much the same way that airplane developers do.

“It will be a step beneath the full-fledge license and will allow the opportunity for the developers to take a level of risk,” Smith told last week. “We’re looking for ways to become more flexible in regulating the industry,” she explained.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta, said the new guidelines, “will shorten the time and lessen the burden on launch vehicle developers much like the aviation community has for experimental aircraft.”

While Mineta’s office has the responsibility to protect public safety, “our approach at the Department of Transportation is to allow this industry the freedom to develop, mindful that it is still in its infancy,” he said at a May 21 gala at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center sponsored by the National Space Society.

The new guidelines come at a time when the era of personal suborbital spaceflight is beginning to take shape. Flights to the edge of space by the piloted SpaceShipOne last year have prodded policymakers into action. Back-to-back flights of SpaceShipOne secured the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse for Burt Rutan, the spacecraft’s designer and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

Their success prompted the creation of Virgin Galactic by adventurer and entrepreneur , Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic has cut a deal with the makers of SpaceShipOne to build a fleet of five passenger-hauling suborbital vehicles. Even before such a vehicle takes to the air, the space travel operator has more than 7,000 requests for initial reservations and about 1,500 down payments on the $200,000 per seat price tag.

AST’s Smith said the suborbital space tourism business has the potential to handle 15,000 passengers and generate $700 million in revenues per year by 2021.

Leonard David has been reporting on space activities for nearly 50 years. He is the 2010 winner of the prestigious National Space Club Press Award and recently co-authored with Apollo 11’s Buzz Aldrin the book “Mission to Mars — My Vision for Space...