Rutan Blasts FAA’s Suborbital Safety Regulations

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BOULDER, Colo. – One of the leaders in the effort to establish a commercial suborbital tourism industry lashed out at the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration during an April 20 congressional hearing, accusing the agency of nearly destroying his efforts by over-regulating the early flights.

“It increased the risk for my test pilots. It did not reduce the risk to the noninvolved public. It destroyed our safety policy of always question the product, never defend it,” said Burt Rutan, the designer of SpaceShipOne, the first privately built vehicle to reach space.

In his testimony to members of the House Science space and aeronautics subcommittee Rutan said the FAA’s paperwork and regulations led to cost overruns. While he still expects the commercial space industry to thrive, Rutan said the current regulatory system is need of repair.

The regulatory process imposed by FAA’s Office of Space Transportation (AST), Rutan said, “was grossly misapplied for our research tests. And worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of future commercial spaceliners.”

Rutan said the FAA is already in short supply of people to maintain its regulatory vigil over the airline industry. He also said there is a need for streamlining the certification of new commercial spaceships.

In an e-mailed reply to a request for a response to Rutan’s accusations, AST’s top official defended her agency’s handling of the fledgling space tourism industry.

“FAA is extremely proud of our safety record and we intend to maintain this level of public safety as we work with developers of suborbital reusable launch vehicles,” said Patricia Grace Smith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. “The space tourism sector represents a promising new market that will generate economic benefits for our nation but only if it is considered a sage and reliable form of transportation. We are striving to support and promote the development of this new industry by offering a regulatory environment that fosters innovation and creativity.”

Rutan was one of a group of experts in the emerging commercial space market to testify before lawmakers. Congress is attempting to define what role the government should or should not play in supporting entrepreneurial space progress.

The potential of space tourism was made all the more real by last year’s successful suborbital flights by Rutan’s SpaceShipOne.

Work is underway to build an affordable and safe vehicle to make personal spaceflight a reality, said Rutan, the chief designer of SpaceShipOne and the head of Mojave, Calif.-based Scaled Composites. Rutan envisions multiple competing spaceline operators vying for space traveler dollars.

“The airline experience has shown us that it is not just technology that provides safety but the maturity that comes from a high-level of flight activity,” Rutan said, adding that “the AST process, focusing only on the noninvolved public, just about ruined my program.”

AST’s stated mission is to ensure protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during a commercial launch or re-entry activity, and to encourage, facilitate and promote U.S. commercial space transportation.

“This problem must be solved quickly to support an industry that needs a proper research environment to allow innovation,” Rutan said.

Once a commercial spaceliner is realized, Rutan said, it will likely fly as many as 500 passengers the first year. And by the fifth year, that number would rise to 3,000 people per year. By the twelfth year of operations, at least 50,000 to 100,000 individuals “will have enjoyed the black sky view of suborbital flight,” he said.

In September 2004 Sir Richard Branson announced that his newly formed Virgin Galactic spaceline would buy a fleet of spacecraft based on SpaceShipOne’s design to carry tourists into suborbital space. The technology is owned by Microsoft mogul Paul Allen, and is called Mojave Aerospace Ventures.

“We’ve not taken lightly the idea of entering the personal spaceflight market,” said Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic and the director of group corporate affairs and brand development for Virgin Management Limited, during the hearing.

“We believe that within five years we can create a viable business,” he said, an enterprise that would lead to eventual reduction of Earth-to-space ticket costs from an initial fee of $200,000 a seat.

Whitehorn said Virgin Galactic would like to order at least five SpaceShipTwo vehicles and start operations before the end of the decade. “We would like to be going through a testing process by the end of 2007 and commercial operation by 2008, if that was possible,” he testified.

There’s a big difference in purchasing an aircraft from airline manufacturers, contrasted to buying a suborbital spaceship, Whitehorn suggested. “We are in uncharted territory here at the experimental cutting edge of a new industry.”

Whitehorn said since the announcement of their suborbital passenger plans, Virgin Galactic has received 29,000 applications. He emphasized that they were not moving forward on the space travel business “as a rich billionaire’s toy adventure.”

“The pioneer astronauts will help fund the process of making personal spaceflight something that people an enjoy and afford in the future,” Whitehorn said. “We believe that, eventually, we could get it down to $25,000 or $30,000 after a number of years, per flight, per person.”

Rutan would not provide specific details on his spaceliner design. “We’re only at the preliminary stage of technology development,” he noted.

On the other hand, the aerospace designer offered a sneak peek at what a ticket-in-hand space passenger might see. “The very first generation of commercial suborbital spaceships will be experience-optimized,” Rutan added.