Associate Administrator, Federal Aviation Administration, Office of Commercial Transportation
When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) assumed responsibility for licensing the commercial space transportation industry in 1995, the telecom boom was the big driver of its regulatory activities, as
companies took steps to boost their share of the global market for launching communications satellites.
Since then, however, that business has largely become an overseas affair: Of the 13 FAA-licensed launches conducted over the last 18 months, seven involved communications satellites; six of those were carried out by Sea Launch, which operates from an ocean-going platform using a Russian-Ukrainian rocket. Sea Launch filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection in June.
George Nield, who took the reins of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) early last year, says there is still plenty to do between licensing conventional commercial launches and working with emerging companies developing vehicles to carry paying tourists to suborbital space or deliver cargo to the international space station.
“We are working with about a half a dozen companies right now that are in the process of designing, developing or testing vehicles that are intended to carry people up to the edge of space and allow them to see the blackness of the sky, and the curvature of the Earth and experience weightlessness and then return safely,” Nield says. “Some of those companies are planning to start their test flights within the next year or two and once the testing is complete, I anticipate regular and frequent flights of these vehicles with passengers on board.”
Meanwhile, cargo runs to the international space station aboard vehicles being developed by Orbital Sciences Corp. and Space Exploration Technologies () with NASA funding help will be treated as commercial launches subject to FAA licensing and regulations.
, a veteran aerospace engineer who came to the FAA from industry in 2003, spoke recently with Space News Deputy Editor Brian Berger.
If Sea Launch is unable to emerge from bankruptcy, how much of a
commercial launch industry will be left for AST to regulate?
Let me first say that although we were saddened by the news about Sea Launch, it’s just an indication that no industry can expect to be totally immune to the challenges associated with the global economic situation that we’re in right now and we certainly wish them the best going forward. It would be our hope certainly that after restructuring they would be able to continue their operations and I believe that’s their plan. So we certainly are rooting for them in that regard. But in terms of the rest of the industry, I would say things really look very bright right now and it’s not necessarily the traditional kind of mission we’re talking about anymore.
Can you be specific?
NASA is in the process of retiring the shuttle, and once that last mission takes place, NASA has committed to relying on private industry to supply the international space station. And why does that matter to us? Because those launches will be licensed by the FAA and so that’s going to be a steady stream of launches to support the space station and other purposes going forward. And whether that’s Orbital and SpaceX and/or others we’ll see. The second big change is that we’re on the threshold today of really a new era in space transportation, and that is commercial human spaceflight – specifically suborbital space tourism. And to think that within just a couple of years we’re going to see, I believe, several operators flying hundreds of launches every year with thousands of people on board, that’s really going to change the way we think about spaceflight. And again, all those missions will be FAA licensed so there’s a lot of business for us, there’s a lot of activity for the nation, there’s lots of exciting things happening in the very near future and we’re certainly optimistic about the future.
The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 imposed an eight-year moratorium on safety regulations for commercial passenger spaceflight. The idea was to give this nascent industry time to establish a set of best practices that could then be converted to regulations. Given that the first flights have yet to occur, what is AST’s approach to developing these regulations?
The first thing that has to happen is we need to gain experience that is going to tell us where additional regulations would be necessary and appropriate, and as you mentioned we haven’t had that type of experience to date. On the aviation side, we have decades of experience. That’s something that’s missing in the space arena. So we’ve done the best we can at being performance based, at ensuring the safety of the uninvolved people on the ground, but in terms of what specific design features should be required in order to protect the crew or the passengers, we’re not aware of any particular areas right now and so we don’t have current plans to issue regulations at the end of 2012 unless we see something come up in the meantime that would warrant that.
Should the moratorium be extended?
Frankly, I don’t think that’s required. Again, we have no plans to issue regulations just because we can. We would issue regulations because they would be helpful to increase the safety of the operations. We have existing published regulations for both expendable and reusable launch vehicles, for human spaceflight and for the operation of launch sites and space ports. All of those are in place. Everybody knows the rules. We’re ready to go.
Unlike the rest of the FAA, your office has a mandate to promote the industry it regulates. How do you explain to the new administration why this industry should be treated differently than regular aviation?
First, Congress has told us what we’re to do. And in the law, it says not only ensure public safety but also encourage, facilitate and promote. A conscious decision was made to recognize that the space industry is younger, less mature, and more fragile than aviation and the decision was made that we as a nation want to make sure that we don’t overly stifle or burden this industry before it gets a chance to be successful on its own.
With NASA’s human spaceflight plans under review by a panel led by former Lockheed Martin chief Norm Augustine, there’s fresh talk about human-rating the Atlas 5 and 4 rockets. Under what conditions would AST get involved in such efforts?
I think it’s safe to say that we’re already involved. We have regulations and a philosophy that would allow us to deal with those types of operations today. So if NASA decides to conduct licensed launches such as under the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program or some other purpose, we’d be ready to accommodate that. Also, NASA is very interested in how they can take advantage of the capabilities of industry and so they’ve indicated a willingness and in fact an eagerness to speak with us about taking another look at what does human rating really mean and under what conditions should we apply those criteria. I think the consensus is that it doesn’t make sense to take all of the detailed specification requirements and so forth that NASA has built up for the NASA government launches over the years and just pile those on top of some new entrepreneurial commercial operator. That doesn’t make sense and is probably not necessary. So where do you draw the line? What kinds of things make sense for a commercial operation? What kinds of things make sense if you’re sending crew members up to the international space station? They may be different answers.
If the Augustine panel asked AST how best to stimulate commercial spaceflight opportunities, what would you say?
In all the conversations I’ve had with the industry, people have been very pleased with how NASA ran the COTS program. It was very different than your traditional government contract. It was based on fixed-price milestones and if a company did not successfully complete one of those milestones, they would not get paid. And as a result, there was a huge incentive for success and I think the government got its money’s worth in terms of its investment in that demonstration program. So to the extent that we can use traditional commercial practices like fixed price and pay for performance, I think that is of great benefit to the government and I would strongly encourage a model like the COTS program for its future contracts.