Good News/Bad News On Human Spaceflight Regulation

In a bill passed last week authorizing the Federal Aviation Administration for another year, the moratorium on regulation of the safety of spaceflight participants, in place since 2004, was extended for another three years, but not as long as proponents in industry had hoped:

Section 827 of the bill (on page 318), tucked away in the “Miscellaneous” section of the bill between sections on air passenger screening privacy and air transportation of lithium batteries, extends the current restriction on safety regulations, but only to October 1, 2015. The joint statement of managers of the conference report provides a few more details, on page 152 of the PDF document: “Nothing in this provision is intended to prohibit the FAA and industry stakeholders from entering into discussions intended to prepare the FAA for its role in appropriately regulating the commercial space flight industry when this provision expires.”

The current moratorium, which was due to expire at the end of this calendar year, was put in place by the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, which prohibited the FAA from regulating passenger safety for a period of eight years (its ability to license launches for the protection of uninvolved third parties was not affected). The idea was that the technology was insufficiently well understood by anyone, including the putative regulators, to put in place regulations that wouldn’t stifle industry development and innovation, given all the different approaches (vertical takeoff and landing, horizontal takeoff and landing, air launch, hybrid rockets, liquid rockets, etc.). The model proposed instead was on the basis of informed consent, in which participants would be given all information available on the design and operations of the vehicle, and make their own assessment of the risk, and whether or not it was worth it.

The problem was that everyone had envisioned more rapid progress, but in the seven years since, not a single commercial passenger flight has occurred, due to development problems with Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipTwo propulsion, and the financial crisis starving some of the other fledgling companies of funds needed for development. Accordingly, the industry had been pushing for Congress to extend the moratorium for another eight years to gather more needed experience to intelligently inform regulations, except this time the clock wouldn’t start when the bill passed, but rather when the first commercial passenger spaceflight occurred, to prevent the problem that arose from the first bill.

Though George Nield, head of the FAA office that regulates spaceflight, had wanted the moratorium to end, John Mica, the chairman of the transportation committee on the House side, was amenable, and the extension was included in the House version for months, but it was not in the Senate version, with reports of opposition by a single Senate staffer, and the bill was held up in conference committee for many weeks resolving other, unrelated issues.

Apparently, there was some danger that it would fall out completely, but House Whip Kevin McCarthy apparently went to bat for the industry (Mojave, California, where several of these companies operate, is in his district). He had written an op-ed a few weeks ago advocating the extension, and last week, in a press release with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, took credit for getting the partial extension, though apparently it was a compromise.

But at least it buys time for the industry to continue to develop their vehicles without the uncertainty that had been hanging over their heads about new rules next year (XCOR Aerospace expects to start flying its Lynx rocketplane late this year, and Armadillo Aerospace and Scaled Composites expect actual flights into space, though without passengers). And the short extension, if nothing else, buys time to try to get the full eight years with the first-flight trigger, in a new Congress.