We have reached the tipping point in commercial space traffic, and regulatory thinking is reacting in potentially negative ways. The cadence of commercially provided launches eclipsed governmental rocket launches years ago, and we now see that phenomenon extending to human spaceflight. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is issuing licenses and permits faster than ever, just as airline travelers return to the skies in droves. FAA and AST will be busy doing their usual excellent job of keeping the public, on the ground and in planes, safe during launch and reentry events.
I recently had a very personal view of the interface between our national airspace and the increasing cadence of commercial spaceflight. On April 8, I was flying just west of the Kennedy Space Center and hoping for a glimpse of the Space Launch System rocket from my coach seat. It was a clear day, and the massive Vehicle Assembly Building and the “mega moon rocket” were clearly visible. Amazingly, I just happened to catch the SpaceX Falcon 9 launching the Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1) to ISS. I casually remarked to my neighbor, “Look, there goes my friend Mike flying to space.”
I was referring to Ax-1 Mission Commander Michael López-Alegría. Mike L-A, as he is known in the space community, previously served as vice chair of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), where I am currently wrapping up my assignment as chair of the Safety Working Group. COMASTAC met earlier this month in Washington to advise the FAA and Department of Transportation on various matters related to commercial spaceflight, including industry best practices for ensuring the safety of spaceflight participants (SFPs), aka “commercial astronauts.” As usual for this group of space professionals, the meeting was highly productive but revealed much about the possible future direction of human spaceflight regulation. I took the opportunity to express my growing concern with the increasing intrusion of the “FAA mindset” into AST.
The COMSTAC was established in 1984 to provide information, advice, and recommendations to the U.S. transportation secretary and AST on critical matters concerning the U.S. commercial space transportation industry. I have had the honor to serve on COMSTAC for four years, most recently as chair of the Safety Working Group. I have nothing but praise to offer for the performance of the professionals at AST. I’ve publicly defended their regulatory work from criticism and often noted AST’s success in establishing a space launch regulatory environment that is the envy of the space world. There are very few industries where firms are eager to locate their manufacturing in the U.S.
Let me be clear: FAA is doing an amazing job keeping a mature transportation system incredibly safe. However, partially because of FAA’s prescriptive regulations, nothing much changes in that industry. Aircraft designs are so similar that most passengers probably don’t know the make or model of the aircraft they are flying. FAA moves cautiously and slowly. New systems, like Nextgen air traffic management, take decades to deploy.
However, this culture of prescriptive rules and obsession with passenger safety at all costs is antithetical to AST’s congressionally mandated role of encouraging, facilitating, and supporting a nascent U.S. commercial spaceflight industry. This is an industry testing disruptive technologies and new business models. There is no “dominant design” to lock in and define with detailed prescriptive rules. Doing that would cripple innovation and be more dangerous in the long run than allowing the current level of experimentation. Imagine if FAA looked at the planes from Wright and Curtiss and set up prescriptive regulations in 1912; we’d have rules about the quality of wood and cloth that should be used in aircraft construction. Passengers might be assigned very specifically defined goggles, scarfs and helmets while FAA “continues to research” the safety hazards of closed cabins.
In a nascent industry, constant experimentation and embracing failure are critical to developing reliable systems. You can’t regulate safety into an immature system; you need to develop it from lessons learned. No number of reviews, hearings or committees could make the space shuttle a truly safe vehicle. Moving slower and flying it less reduced learning. Flight cadence is critical to finding better designs and best practices.
As with the NASA shuttle team, the great people at FAA are not programmed to overcome decades of cultural inertia and to suddenly “think differently” about safety. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation should be led by people from the space industry, not the airplane folks. However, just the opposite is occurring. The new deputy at FAA, Michael O’Donnell, is a career airplane safety person with absolutely no apparent space experience. This doesn’t surprise me. I interviewed for the top job at AST a few years ago and was disappointed to find myself facing a panel composed entirely of “airplane” folks. There wasn’t a single space expert, and my efforts to discuss economic development and space industry benefits to our nation and our planet were quickly redirected back to the topic of “the safety of our national airspace.”
This shouldn’t be happening because AST should not be located within the FAA. When the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was established during the Reagan administration, the decision was explicitly made to keep it out of the hands of the FAA bureaucracy, who would surely throttle the growth of a commercial spaceflight industry if it were to emerge. AST was established as an independent office and was first headed by Jenna Dorn, special assistant to then-Transportation Secretary Elizabeth Dole. Courtney Stadd, who directed AST from 1986 to 1988, has told me that he fought against the nascent office being subsumed into FAA. However, when then-Vice President Al Gore took on the task of “reinventing” government in the 1990s, AST was demoted into the FAA. Its sister organization, the Office of Space Commerce (OSC), was similarly pushed into NOAA.
These demotions were tragic decisions we are now paying for as the commercial space industry rapidly grows in ways that are beyond the experience of FAA or NOAA management. Bank of America s projecting a $2.7 trillion space economy. That’s equal to the entire UK economy. Most of that revenue, jobs and tax revenues are America’s to lose. The most surefire way for America to lose is to create a burdensome regulatory environment that scares off investment and drives space launches to flags of convenience.
During the last administration, I and others pushed for an executive order to undo these moves. I strongly encourage the Biden National Space Council to move toward promptly restoring AST and OSC to positions appropriate to the growing significance of the commercial space industry. As with the original demotion, placing the office back in its original position is a change that could be accomplished via White House executive order or simply as an action by the secretary. Congress might also address this issue, and I was pleased to see Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas) recently call for moving OSC out of NOAA. Either way, let’s get moving on aligning our regulatory structures with industry needs. Our international competitors, notably China, are not standing still in space. While China’s space safety practices are abysmal, America has demonstrated we can keep the public safe and allow for robust experimentation in space vehicle design.
Greg Autry is a professor of Space Leadership at the Thunderbird School of Global Management at Arizona State University. He served on the 2016 NASA transition team, as White House Liaison at NASA and as chair of the Safety Working Group in the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee.