Michael Lopez-Alegria is a retired NASA astronaut and now the chief astronaut at Axiom Space, a commercial space company based in Houston. The views expressed are his professional opinion drawing from over three decades of experience in the space industry.
My return to space as the commander of the first fully commercial human spaceflight mission to the International Space Station (ISS), Axiom Mission 1 (Ax-1), quickly reminded me that the work being conducted every day in microgravity is truly building a better life on Earth. My crewmates and I engaged in a remarkable amount of science and STEM outreach in just two weeks while on board, just as I had 15 years before as a NASA astronaut. And now the expansion of commercial capabilities will only increase the amount of research, science and technology demonstrations performed in space by orders of magnitude.
Groundbreaking achievements born from these efforts rest on policy and legislation that created a path for private companies to develop human spaceflight transportation systems – a sea change from the previous 50 years, when the only such systems were solely owned and operated by governments. Included in this historic legislation was the establishment of a “learning period,” whereby the commercial spaceflight industry was provided a time period during which no regulation would be imposed that might stifle innovation and the development of new systems. That learning period is scheduled to sunset this year, meaning that legislation must either be renewed, or it will expire.
Congress has a choice to make this fall: reauthorize the “learning period” putting the nation on a glide path to secure a safety framework commensurate with industry maturity, or allow the “learning period” to expire, which puts the future of commercial human spaceflight – and American leadership in space writ large – at serious risk.
Human spaceflight has long been my personal passion, and the safety of its participants is clearly near and dear to my heart. It is a privilege to serve as the chair of the ASTM effort on commercial spaceflight standards. ASTM is a world-renowned standards development organization that works with industry, government, and other stakeholders to develop internationally accepted standards that can be utilized by both industry and governments. Consensus standards have proven fundamental to the safety and success of many industries, including consumer products, aviation, and medical devices, and are a powerful tool that is helping make commercial human spaceflight safer as companies works to make space more accessible than it has ever been before.
The space industry is taking the lessons learned from past human spaceflight efforts and recent innovations, and applying them to the unique complement of vehicles now flying as well as those in development. Each company brings expertise about how its system works and why it works. By sharing, collaborating, and agreeing to what should be standardized, the industry as a whole becomes safer. These standards are flexible and can be updated as the industry evolves.
Continued development of these standards is a far better option to enhance commercial human spaceflight safety than letting the “learning period” expire. This approach allows the true subject matter experts that reside in industry to collaborate, with robust participation and engagement from government regulators, to define standards that promote safety and are also viable for industry to adopt. Further, under the National Technology Transfer and Advancement Act of 1995, Federal regulators in the future may point to the very standards that they helped industry develop as eventual regulation.
On the other hand, if regulation is introduced too soon, we risk imposing directives based on too little experience and discouraging innovation at a time when the industry is not yet fully mature. Long-term transparency, stability, and predictability in the regulatory regime for human spaceflight will be critical someday but proceeding to “common carrier” style human spaceflight regulation now will have a chilling effect on innovation and entrepreneurial success.
Congress should support the U.S. commercial space industry and the thousands of high-tech American jobs it has created with a flexible path to regulation that allows for transformational leaps in our technological development. The statutory “learning period” is currently slated to expire at the end of September of this year. We have the opportunity to work together through both government innovation in regulation and industry consensus to support a burgeoning space economy at a time of increasing global competition. I encourage Congress to consider taking a step forward that embraces the voluntary standards process, in accordance with industry maturity, while keeping the aperture open for what a future regulatory environment will look like once industry has achieved a routine human spaceflight cadence with a diverse set of launch vehicles and spacecraft.
Together we can find a solution that ensures our competitive edge globally, encourages innovation, and continues to lead the world in human spaceflight safety. Let us work to chart that path forward together.