Looks like the honeymoon between the FAA and the nascent commercial space industry is coming to an end. Or at least the moratorium on government regulation.
George Nield, who heads up the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, said earlier this week in Washington that he is against extending the “learning period” for commercial human spaceflight when it expires in 2015.
During that period, the FAA is generally restrained from rule making to allow the commercial spaceflight industry to experiment with different designs and systems for getting into space. However, the FAA can act if there is an accident or a close call.
Nield said that the “learning period” implies that there haven’t been useful lessons learned during the previous 50 plus years of human spaceflight. He pointed to NASA’s long record of spaceflight, which included 135 space shuttle missions. The US Air Force also has experience with the X-15 rocket plane, which flew 199 missions with 13 reaching above the 50-mile Air Force boundary of space.
Nield’s position puts him at odds with the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which wants to extend the learning period by eight years after the first commercial spaceflight. COMSTAC is a body composed of industry officials that provides information, advice, and recommendations on the field.
Nield said that although many of the companies the FAA works with have excellent safety cultures, there is a risk that a “bad actor” will come along to ruin it for the entire industry. If the FAA has no any pass/fail criteria, he added, then everyone in the field passes regardless of the quality of their vehicles and operations.
Nield said the FAA has been criticized in the past as having a “tombstone mentality,” in essence waiting for accidents to happen before acting to improve aviation. He would prefer to be proactive, and believes that the government, industry and academia can work together to develop a set of regulations that will improve safety in advance of accidents.
In testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space, Nield also called for the FAA to have authority to regulate on-orbit operations of commercial space vehicles. Currently, the FAA is involved in issuing licenses for launches and re-entries only.
“The FAA believes it is time to explore orbital safety of commercial space transportation under the Commercial Space Launch Act licensing regime,” Nield said in prepared testimony. “The FAA’s experience with collision avoidance includes conducting analysis and implementing orbital debris mitigation practices consistent with international standards, but these are limited to commercial launch and reentry activities….
“Should the FAA authority be increased, we would work to ensure appropriate levels of orbital safety are maintained in addition to our responsibilities of licensing launch and reentry,” he added. “The goal would be for the FAA to address orbital transportation safety, including for orbital debris mitigation, for spacecraft whose primary function was transportation.”
Nield also called upon Congress to make a regulatory change to accommodate government astronauts flying to the International Space Station on new commercially owned transports being developed under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program.
“We strongly support the Administration’s requested changes to the Commercial Space Launch Act that would add a third category of occupants called government astronauts,” Neild said in his prepared remarks. “The changes would complement our existing definitions of crew and spaceflight participants, and would increase transparency and ease the administration of our regulations in the context of NASA astronauts serving as crew.”