SS2 Unity flight two
Virgin Galactic's second SpaceShipTwo, VSS Unity, during a powered test flight. Credit: & Trumbull Studios

WASHINGTON — A new report recommends that current restrictions on the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to regulate safety for people flying on commercial spacecraft be allowed to expire later this year.

The report by the RAND Corporation, prepared for Congress and released April 3, concluded that despite limited progress on establishing voluntary industry safety standards, the FAA and industry were now ready to start the process of developing formal safety standards for those participating in commercial spaceflight.

A provision in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 established a moratorium, often called a “learning period” in industry, on the FAA’s ability to enact safety regulations for spaceflight participants. That limits the ability of the FAA to enact safety regulations except in cases of accidents that caused deaths or serious injuries, or events that posed a high risk of deaths or serious injuries.

That learning period was originally intended to expire in 2012 but was extended in subsequent legislation because of a lack of commercial human spaceflight activity that could serve as an experience base upon which to build regulations. The most recent extension, in 2015, moved the expiration of the learning period to Oct. 1. It also called on the FAA to hire an independent organization to produce a report on the progress the industry was making on voluntary standards as well as “key industry metrics” to assess the readiness of the industry for regulations.

The RAND report, developed to meet that requirement in the 2015 law, recommended no further extensions of the learning period. “This is to say that we recommend that the moratorium set to expire on October 1, 2023, should expire on that date, but it will be important to ensure that the FAA is appropriately resourced to engage in these activities,” the report stated.

That recommendation came despite a lack of progress on voluntary standards and key industry metrics. While standards development organizations like ASTM International and ISO have published 20 standards related to commercial spaceflight, the RAND report noted that “companies have yet to clearly or consistently adopt them in a manner that can be confirmed or verified publicly.” A diversity of technical approaches also hinders the development and implementation of standards.

The report also found that while the FAA had developed key industry indicators to assess readiness for adopting safety regulations, there were no goals for those indicators to determine when it was time to implement regulations. “It is, therefore, difficult to assess whether there has been progress toward meeting key industry metrics when there are not clear targets that could be met,” the report concluded.

Despite that lack of progress on standards or metrics, the RAND report nonetheless concluded that allowing the learning period to expire this year was the best approach. Doing so, it argued, would allow FAA and industry to start the process of developing safety regulations in a gradual manner and avoid a rush to regulate imposed by Congress should a high-profile accident take place while the learning period is still in effect.

It also recommended additional resources for the FAA to support that regulatory process, but did not quantify an increase in the budget for or personnel assigned to its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST.

The report noted that it’s unlikely that AST would immediately publish regulations once the learning period expires, something that agency officials have emphasized. “We are now in what we call a regulatory preparation period where we’re trying to prepare ourselves for the eventuality of having further oversight of the industry,” Kelvin Coleman, associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said in a speech at the recent Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference in Colorado.

He said after the speech that those efforts were along several lines, including preparing to establish a formal aerospace rulemaking committee as well as encouraging further development of industry standards. “We don’t have, ready to go in a file cabinet somewhere, a volume of recommendations we’re ready to roll out,” he said. The preparations, he said, are intended to shorten a rulemaking process that can take, on average, about five years.

Industry is more cautious about regulations. “I don’t feel like anyone is really ready to understand what regulations are going to look like,” said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, at the same conference. She said she expected to work with both AST and Congress “on what we would want to provide as a solution.”

A potential extension or modification of the learning period could be considered as part of an overall reauthorization for the FAA this year. Some in the field expect some kind of learning period extension.

“It’s my expectation, based on looking at the world, that this moratorium will be extended,” said Chris Gerace, manager of NASA’s Suborbital Crew (SubC) program that is considering flying civil servants on commercial suborbital vehicles, during a panel later at the conference. He noted NASA held no position on the learning period and that any extension was up to Congress.

Tim Bulk, chief technical officer of Special Aerospace Services, a company supporting NASA on the SubC program, held a similar view based on the limited resources at the FAA. “They’re definitely going to be resource constrained,” he said, impairing its ability to develop regulations. “The moratorium is going to be extended, I believe.”

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...