Witt to Congress: Extend Learning Period, Revise ITAR and Make Indemnification Permanent

Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)
Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt (Credit: Bill Deaver)

In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space on Wednesday, Mojave Air and Space Port CEO Stu Witt urged legislators to extend the “learning period” for new space systems to eight years, remove suborbital tourism vehicles from the ITAR list, and to make permanent the risk-sharing launch indemnification in which the government covers damages from private space missions above a certain level.

“This industry needs regulatory certainty,” Witt said in his prepared remarks. “But the learning period restriction on unsubstantiated safety regulations expires in less than two years and the risk-sharing (indemnification) regime expires at the end of next month. That regulatory uncertainty is difficult for many companies. I ask Congress to make Indemnification permanent, and also extend the Learning Period to a full eight years of R&D and operational flights to provide regulatory certainty to firms developing passenger carrying vehicles.”

The goal behind the learning period is to allow spacecraft operators to experiment with different designs and systems before the FAA begins to mandate safety requirements and standards. Proponents say the government could prevent the industry from growing by prematurely imposing strict regulations before there are data to back them up.

Under the indemnification regime, launch companies are responsible for third-party claims for up to $500 million, with the government picking up claims between $500 million and $1.5 billion. The companies are responsible for any claims above that level.

Witt argued that they system provides a good balance between private and public risk. He added that the government has never had to use the regime to cover third-party losses.

On another subject, Witt said that the Obama Administration’s reform of the ITAR export regulations would hurt companies in Mojave that are interested in operating their space vehicles in foreign countries. XCOR and Virgin Galactic are both eying overseas markets for their suborbital space planes, which will fly tourists and experiments in microgravity.

“I strongly urge this Congress to take action to identify and find meaningful relief for the investments of XCOR and Virgin Galactic so their product line can be operated worldwide,” Witt said in his prepared remarks. “Actions you take to provide such relief will assist all other domestic space systems providers and developers. The Kingdom of Sweden, through Spaceport Sweden, has been actively seeking access to US Space Sub-Orbit vendors to operate commercial flights through the aura borealis from Northern Sweden but the obstacle continues to be ITAR. This specific issue was raised by Sweden during the President’s recent visit to Stockholm.”