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.

  • ThomasLMatula

    The real decision point in this debate will be when the findings about the VG crash are released. In the interim starting a discussion to prepare for the release would not be a bad idea.

  • Visitor

    Perhaps, rather than ‘regulation’ per se, an independent quantification of risk might be a good starting point? That way ‘consent’ will be better informed.
    If risk of fatality is, say 1: 1,000, there would be quite a few passengers happy with that level of risk.
    I note that Virgin Galactic has backed off considerably on safety claims, which is a good move, but some sort of knowledge of ‘the odds’ might really help?

  • Douglas Messier

    What comes out about the SS2 accident is definitely a wild card here. It will depend somewhat on how bad it is, and the timing.

    I think there is a deep hope that the whole thing can be pinned on a simple case of pilot error. Mike Alsbury, flawed and tragic hero. My guess is it goes a lot deeper than that.

  • Charles Lurio

    Jeff Greason nails the issue, that while there is much to learn from the past, how to integrate that into the new kinds of vehicles required for lower cost _and_ greater safety is unknowable.

    While I don’t think George Nield personally would do this, and certainly not so intentionally, giving the FAA the ability to create rules that could create unforeseen restrictions on the development phase space is just a really bad idea.

    The learning period should continue “indefinitely for now.”

  • LesSavvy

    Doug, as I have only been following the story of VG since 10/31 and am a newish parabolic arc reader, can you please tell me about the other deaths you mentioned? Thank you in advance.

  • DavidR2015
  • Hug Doug

    there was an explosion at a test stand in 2007 that killed 3 people.

  • Douglas Messier

    My other thought is the government is giving the industry an enormous amount of leeway in developing and testing its vehicle. No passenger safety requirements, informed consent. States are going further, building spaceports and passing liability laws to protect the companies.

    The policies actually puts a lot of responsibility on the companies to operate in a responsible and safe manner. But, what if they’re not? What if investigators find poor safely cultures and bad practices? What if the companies really don’t know what they’re doing?

    If industry can’t live up to its half of the deal, things will have to change. The hands off approach won’t be sustainable anymore.

  • LesSavvy

    Thanks, guys.

  • Matt

    My subjective impression in this context, which may be wrong: The production process of SS2, displayed in some of the videos, which were presented in this blog, looks not very sophisticated, more hand-made.

  • DavidR2015

    How many prototypes do you know of that are made on a production line?

  • Matt

    Is there also a production line planned? 🙂

  • Vladislaw

    We all want safe vehicles and a safety culture, but sometimes it is frustrating that while each day the debate goes on 100 + people die in car crashes and no one bats an eye.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Except its a number that has been declining each year, with decline starting in the 1960’s when auto safety regulations (under the DOT) started to take effect (seat belts, safety glass, etc.)

  • ThomasLMatula

    Probably not given that so few will be built.

  • Vladislaw

    Do all the deaths associated with space, in the last half of a century, even equal ONE DAY of auto deaths? That is my point. People who seem to think that some how .. as we push out into outer space death wil eliminated. Safety taken to the extreme.

  • Vladislaw

    So how many deaths had to actually occur prior to the 60’s before regulation was a good thing? A million? 20k – 40k per year for how long?

  • Douglas Messier

    They were going to press the prototypes of SpaceShipOne and WhiteKnightTwo into commercial service despite the fact that they were “proof of concept” vehicles. That’s what Scaled Composites calls them in FAA documents. They were never intended for commercial service. But, Virgin Galactic was running out of money.

  • Douglas Messier

    Driving is something that many people have to do. It’s part of daily life for most of us. The best we can do is make it as safe as possible. And there’s no argument that safer cars, highway safety enhancements, mandatory safety recalls and the effort to reduce drunk driving have had a major impact on reducing deaths. There are more of us, we drive more but the death rate has decreased. That can only go so far.

    Suborbital spaceflight isn’t anything anyone has to go do. It doesn’t really go anywhere anyone needs to go (point to point travel market). There’s limited cargo capability. As a business, it will be difficult to sustain with any sort of a high fatality rate.

  • Matt

    Thank you for explanation.

  • Vladislaw

    I understand that Douglas, I post on a lot of blogs and when I see comments that we should be turtle’ing up because space is just to dangerous when we are a witness to death in every other form of transportation known to humanity, it just surprises me. We are smart little monkeys but we still trip on stairs and break necks so this mantra of safe at any cost when it comes to space just seems to fly in the face of reality.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Yes, it has a lot in common with airship travel. It was fun for the super rich until the Hindenburg,but never essential and has never really come back except for some short flights on the small blimps still in service.

  • ThomasLMatula

    For tourism the market will quickly disappear. But for activities like space settlement for the purpose of expanding humanity’s resource base, or scientific and research flights, it will go on based on a cost/benefit basis. For example the Shuttle mission to serve the Hubble telescope after the Columbia accident.

  • ThomasLMatula

    Actually it was when American culture changed after WWII when the nation started to become more risk adverse.

  • Visitor

    So, following on from your ‘prototype’ observations:
    The testing regime for SS2.1 was not completed. Does not that now mean SS2.2 is also a prototype? Are VG planning to use SS2.2 for commercial service?

  • Hug Doug

    just wait until driverless cars drop that line close to the bottom of that chart!

  • Hug Doug

    actually, it’s pretty close (depending on how many people actually died in the failure of a Chinese Long March rocket in 1996, estimates vary from 6-100).

    about 92 people die each day in car crashes in the US alone.

  • Douglas Messier

    I don’t know. It’s a good question. Hadn’t thought of that.

  • savuporo

    I thought it’s pretty simple. There is no industry, so there is nothing to regulate.

    Once we are talking about substantial payments for services rendered, you can call something an industry.