McCarthy and Virgin Galactic Hope Commercial Space Measure SOARS

Capitol Building
By Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

In a move that would have a major impact on how Virgin Galactic and other space companies operate, Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has introduced legislation that would simplify the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) permitting and licensing procedures for new commercial spacecraft.

The Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining Act (SOARS) also would broaden the definitions of launch vehicles and launch services to include the WhiteKnightTwo carrier aircraft and spaceflight participant training conducted aboard it.

Another section of the measure would require the FAA to undertake a three-year demonstration project “to evaluate the benefits of using experimental aircraft for both the direct and indirect support of commercial space launch and reentry activities.”

Simplifying Permitting and Licensing

SOARS would end the separation between experimental permits and launch licenses. Under current law, a company first applies for an experimental permit to flight test its vehicle, and then it applies for a launch license. Once the license is granted, it supersedes and invalidates the experimental permit.

Under SOARS, an existing experimental permit would remain valid after a license is issued, allowing a company to continue flight tests to evaluate changes to their vehicles. The FAA also could issue an experimental permit after it has granted a license for a launch system.

Testifying before the House Subcommittee on Space in December, Mojave Air and Space Port CEO and General Manager Stu Witt said the changes would simplify permitting and licensing and create a one-stop shop for suborbital providers.

“Section 2 of the bill allows companies to flight test a vehicle under a permit even after that class of vehicle has received a license,” Witt said in his prepared remarks. “It’s very important to allow companies to test each new copy of a spaceship they make, even if previous ones are operating commercially. And if a vehicle requires a repair, the operator should be able to test that repair under the flexible permit regime before returning to revenue flight under their license.”

He added that the measure would “streamline paperwork and oversight business operations but will come with some geo-operations constraints under FAA AST, which I also support.”

At the same hearing, Rep. McCarthy — whose district includes the Mojave spaceport where Virgin Galactic is located — told the committee that SOARS would help encourage the development of America’s emerging commercial space sector.

“This is why I introduced H.R. 3038 to ensure that the U.S. commercial spaceflight industry has a clear path ahead as it continues to innovate and generate high-quality American manufacturing jobs,” he said in prepared remarks. “The goal of this bill is to streamline the regulatory process for commercial spacecraft, ensuring that America remains a leader in commercial spaceflight, while providing the Secretary of Transportation the necessary tools to help the industry operate safely.”

Impact on SpaceShipTwo Testing

SpaceShipTwo is now undergoing flight tests in Mojave, Calif. The suborbital space plane has flow three times under power using a nitrous oxide-rubber hybrid engine, with additional flight tests planned for later this year. In the meantime, the company has applied to the FAA for a launch license.

The hybrid engine used for the three flights is inadequate for getting SpaceShipTwo into space, according to sources. The engine produces severe oscillations and vibrations that could injure the occupants and damage the ship. As a result, SpaceShipTwo has flown to only 71,000 feet and Mach 1.4, far short of the speed and altitude required to reach space.

Engineers have tested a modified nitrous oxide-rubber hybrid on the ground that they believe can do the job, sources say. They are currently making extensive modifications to SpaceShipTwo to accommodate the new propulsion system. Flight tests might resume in June at the earliest, sources say.

By allowing experimental permits and licenses to overlap, the SOARS legislation would allow the FAA to issue a launch license even as Virgin Galactic continued flight tests of SpaceShipTwo. The experimental permit would remain valid as long as changes to the vehicle don’t violate any of the conditions laid out in the permit.

Virgin Galactic applied for the launch license in August. The FAA has 180 days to make a decision once an application is deemed complete. It’s not clear when that happened, but a decision might be expected soon.

The question is whether Virgin Galactic wants a launch license that would invalidate its experimental permit. The other question is whether the FAA wants to grant one for a vehicle that has yet to fly anywhere near space and whose propulsion system remains a work in progress.

On a recent edition of The Space Show, NBC News journalist Alan Boyle told host David Livingston that his FAA sources indicate the agency wants more information from Virgin Galactic on the performance of SpaceShipTwo before issuing a launch license.

Boyle was not specific, but the additional information would presumably come from flight tests with the modified engine. The FAA probably wants to see SpaceShipTwo actually fly into space, or somewhere close to it, before issuing a launch license.

“It sounds as if it’s going to be a while before that license is issued, but it’s no serious worry on the part of anyone at this point,” he said.

Meanwhile, it is unclear when the House might take up the SOARS legislation. McCarthy introduced the bill on Aug. 2, 2013. The measure was referred to the House Subcommittee on Space  on Dec. 13. The subcommittee does not appear to have taken any formal action on the bill in the past three months.

Redesignating WhiteKnightTwo

SOARS would also expand the definition of what licenses and permits cover to include carrier aircraft such as the WhiteKnightTwo that are part of a launch system but don’t go into space. The measure also would allow Virgin Galactic to use WhiteKnightTwo for crew and spaceflight participant training missions under the approvals granted for SpaceShipTwo.

The significance of this change is that as part of the launch system, WhiteKnightTwo would not have to undergo the FAA’s expensive and time-consuming certification process that is required for other aircraft in order to carry passengers.

SpaceShipTwo is not undergoing a certification process. The FAA is licensing it as a launch vehicle, with the primary focus on protecting the uninvolved public on the ground. Passengers will be flying under an informed consent regime in which they acknowledge they are embarking on an dangerous activity in which they might be injured or killed.

FAA Demonstration Project

The final section of the SOARS Act requires the FAA to establish and implement “a demonstration project…to evaluate the benefits of using experimental aircraft for both the direct and indirect support of commercial space launch and reentry activities.”

“Direct and indirect support” is defined in the SOARS Act as as “pilot, crew, and passenger evaluation, preparation, and training, payload testing and preparation, and any other activities deemed necessary by the commercial space launch company participating in the demonstration project to prepare for, or execute, a commercial suborbital or orbital launch.”

The three-year demonstration project would use experimental vehicles and possibly former military aircraft. It would involve no fewer than eight commercial businesses, with at least one business designated for each licensed commercial space launch facilities.

If any of the designated launch facilities do not have commercial companies participating, the FAA can redeploy the allocation to other facilities that have additional companies interested in the program.

The measure mentions revenue-producing activities occurring under the program. However, it does not specify what the demonstration project might cost and what part of it — if any — the FAA would pick up.

The SOARS Act does limit the liability of participating companies for damages to “actual losses incurred.” The FAA also will not charge any fees to participating companies and licensed launch facilities.

In his testimony before Congress, Witt said there is a need to provide passengers with realistic training to prepare for the high g-forces, confined spaces, centrifugal forces and other unfamiliar conditions they will experience during spaceflights. Former military aircraft could potentially provide this training, he added.

However, he called the demonstration project as described in the bill “ambiguous” and said it required further review and possible modification. He feared it would lead the FAA and participants “into that mysterious land of unintended consequences.”

“If implemented as proposed, Section 3 could have an adverse impact on the industry…The question arises as to whether this should be under ‘informed consent’ or a new regime under FAA’s aircraft side,” Witt said.

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