Learning Period Extension Could Depend on SpaceShipTwo Investigation Results

SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)
SpaceShipTwo disintegrates as its two tail booms fall away. (Credit: Kenneth Brown)

During the FAA’s recent Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, DC, there was a lot of talk about extending the learning period and regulatory “moratorium” on commercial human spaceflight that expires on Sept. 30.

Having failed to fly into space in the decade since the restrictions were put into place, industry naturally wants yet another extension so they can continue learning their lessons. In the meantime, voluntary standards will suffice. The FAA is of another mind, wanting to have the authority to write a basic set of safety standards and to react quickly to situations as they develop.

The moratorium and learning period represent an implicit bargain between the government and industry. The federal government has given companies extraordinary  leeway to develop their vehicles and to take risks, with customers flying under an informed consent regime. State governments have gone further, passing laws that protect the industry from lawsuits except in certain circumstances.

In return, government is expecting companies to exhibit a high level of competence and care in their operations. There is a reasonable expectation that putting safety first will be a reality, not just a marketing slogan. That the risks taken will be calculated, not reckless. That test programs are careful, now cowboy.

The obvious question in the wake of the SpaceShipTwo accident is whether Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic have upheld their end of the bargain. Four people have died in a program with only three successful powered flights that never went anywhere near space.  There have been at least two other incidents during which catastrophe was narrowly avoided.

It will be interesting to see what comes out of the investigation into the crash. I expect we will learn a lot about the training, procedures and safety cultures at Scaled Composites and Virgin Galactic. And about FAA’s role in overseeing the industry.

If the results are not positive, they will strengthen the FAA’s hand in regulating the industry. And that could have very deep implications for everyone in the field.