Battle Brewing Over Extending Commercial Spaceflight Learning Period

Part of SpaceShipTwo's fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
Part of SpaceShipTwo’s fuselage. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

A battle is brewing over whether to extend the learning period for the commercial spaceflight industry, with Congress needing to make a decision before October on when the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will be allowed to regulate an industry still struggling to get off the ground.

On one side are FAA officials, who believe they can begin to craft basic safety regulations based on more than 50 years of human spaceflight experience. Industry figures dispute this, saying they still don’t have enough experience with their varied vehicles to begin the process.

The divide was on display during the FAA’s recent Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C., where government, industry and elected officials debated whether to further extend a regulatory ban that expires on Sept. 30.

The stakes in the battle were raised in October when two failures occurred in fewer than three days. On Oct. 28, an Orbital Sciences Antares rocket exploded shortly lift-off from Wallops Island, Virginia. Three days later, Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo crashed in the Mojave Desert, killing pilot Mike Alsbury.

“In both cases, our primary mission, to ensure the safety of the un-involved public, was achieved,” said George Nield, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST). “But, if commercial space transportation is to have any hope of reaching its full potential, all of us, governments, industry, and academia, are going to have to work together to figure out how to make these systems much safer, much more reliable, and much more cost-effective than they are today.”

Nield, who favors letting the moratorium expire in September, noted that government regulations can take take many years to formulate and implement.

“I, frankly, like having the flexibility of being able to act quickly if and when there is a need identified for regulations,” Nield said. “I have to say today I cannot point to a particular area, particular requirement that we need to immediately start with a new regulation on.

“I like having the tools available in terms of being able to write regulations, being able to issue licenses and permits, and having our team of safety inspectors on call and out in the field to oversee these operations,” he added. “Those are the tools we have in our office to ensure safe, and we are eager to work with industry on a partnership basis to identify best practices and common sense standards.”

The learning period is not an absolute ban on regulations; the FAA can step in if necessary. However, the agency’s primary focus is on protecting the un-involved public, i.e., people on the ground with no involvement in the spaceflight. There are no regulations governing the safety of spacecraft occupants; passengers fly under an informed consent regime in which they must acknowledge the dangers they are taking.

The moratorium was originally put in place in 2004 amid the excitement over SpaceShipOne winning the $10 million Ansari X Prize for being the first privately built vehicle to fly to space. Legislators believed eight years would be sufficient for the industry to begin flying vehicles and gather the data required for the FAA to begin formulating regulations. When no one had flown by 2012, Congress extended the period for another three years.

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space, said the intent of the learning period remains unfulfilled.

“How can the FAA regulated and industry that does not exist and has not flown a single paying customer?” he asked. “Today the situation has not changed all that much. The FAA still has no doubt a use for the regulations in the commercial’s human space launch industry is still working hard to get off the ground.

“While it may be true that the U.S. has over 50 years of human spaceflight experience can I do not think anybody believes a vibrant, commercial, human spaceflight sector can thrive under those traditional structures,” Palazzo added.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK), who sits on the House Science Committee, agreed with Palazzo.

“When you think about the learning period and the idea that maybe we need a reduce regulatory environment for a period of time as this industry is starting to move forward,” he said. “Again I support that absolutely wholeheartedly as well.”

FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said the agency does not want to change the experimental culture of the space agency. He said industry and government need to work together to facilitate an “appropriate transition to a framework that involves performance-based standard.

“What I would like to suggest is we need to start a conversation, a thoughtful discussion across government and across industry about risk. What we don’t want to have is some kind of framework that would be imposed upon us in a reaction to something that might happen. We need to start a conversation about the balance between innovation and regulation. But, I do not think it is realistic to think there should not be any standards or any regulation at all ever.”

During a panel on commercial spaceflight industry standards, representatives from Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace expressed support for continuing the learning period.

“There are many lessons to be learned from past experience in government spaceflight,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “The way in which those lessons were going to apply to new vehicles that had the added requirement of being able to operate at a cost less than their price was not going to be straightforward. So, we were confronting a new field, and the way in which the lessons of the past were going to apply to the new field was going to have to emerge from practice.”

While the debate continues over extending the learning period, the FAA has issued a set of recommended practices for human spaceflight occupant safety. The voluntary standards were produced after three years of consultation with industry and academia.

“That was a significant milestone or our office,” Nield said. “It essentially represents our ideas of what things need to be considered by all those in industry designing and operating vehicles intended for humans. We drew on the last 50 years of human spaceflight, which we’ve had in this country, and put out some drafts for comment by our commercial space transportation advisory committee, and also got some comments in from NASA.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group, also has a subcommittee that is working on a set of voluntary standards for its members.