The Space Reviewin association with SpaceNews

Greason and Muncy
Jim Muncy of PoliSpace (right) talks about legislation at a Senate rountable on suborbital spaceflight in September as Jeff Greason of XCOR looks on. (credit: J. Foust)

Easing regulatory uncertainty

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Congress to the rescue?

With the regulatory status of suborbital vehicles uncertain, members of the industry as well as space activists asked Congress to intervene and specify in law how such vehicles should be regulated. “This new industry needs the Congress to mandate in law an enabling regulatory framework for commercial suborbital human spaceflight,” Tito told Congress in July.

In June Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), chairman of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Technology Committee, along with Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), chairman of that committee’s Science, Technology, and Space subcommittee, introduced S.1260, the Commercial Space Transportation Act of 2003. The bill contains a single sentence about regulating suborbital vehicles: “Not later than 6 months after the date of enactment of this Act, the Secretary of Transportation shall submit to Congress a report on the need for a distinct regulatory regime for suborbital vehicles taking into account the unique characteristics and purposes of these vehicles.”

Early last month Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), chairman of the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee, introduced H.R.3245, the Commercial Space Act of 2003. This bill goes farther than the Senate version in that it includes the definitions for suborbital vehicle and suborbital trajectory that AST promulgated earlier this year, and directs the FAA to regulate suborbital vehicles as launch vehicles, not aircraft. “The Secretary of Transportation shall clearly distinguish the Department’s regulation of air commerce from its regulation of commercial human spaceflight, and focus the Department’s regulation of commercial human spaceflight activities on protecting the safety of the general public, while allowing spaceflight participants who have been trained and meet license-specific standards to assume an informed level of risk,” the bill states.

H.R.3245 was marked up by Rohrabacher’s subcommittee on October 8 and forwarded to the full House Science Committee for its consideration. Speaking at the Space Frontier Conference in Los Angeles last month, Jim Muncy of PoliSpace said he expects the full committee to take up the bill in late January or early February. “There will be a lot of work done on the staff level between now and then to make sure they’re happy with the bill,” he said. “It’s not a controversial bill.” In the best case, he said, the bill would pass, be reconciled with S.1260, and become law as early as April, although he acknowledged that it would probably take longer. Rohrabacher, speaking later at the same conference, was more optimistic, saying that “maybe by the end of this year we will pass that through and it will be signed by the President.”

“There will be a lot of work done on the staff level between now and then to make sure they’re happy with the bill,” Muncy said of H.R.3245. “It’s not a controversial bill.”

The recent publication in the Federal Register of regulations favorable to suborbital vehicle developers has taken away the urgency behind the legislation, however. Some people in the industry acknowledge that the regulations have reduced some of momentum of the efforts to pass the legislation. However, they plan to continue to press for the bills. One reason is that what can be done in the Federal Register could also be undone in the Register at some future date, while changing regulations written into federal law would take substantially more effort. The bills also contain additional provisions: both include funding authorizations for AST and extend the coverage period for third-party indemnification of commercial launches. The House version also includes definitions of “spaceflight participant”, or space tourist, and how flights of commercial vehicles carrying such people should be regulated. The House bill also authorizes funding for the Office of Space Commercialization within the Department of Commerce and renames it the Office of Space Commerce.

Last week the Suborbital Institute, an organization that bills itself as a trade association for the suborbital industry, held the third in a series of briefings with Congressional staffers on suborbital issues, including drumming up support for the House and Senate bills. A luncheon the organization held attracted a standing-room-only crowd of junior staffers and suborbital activists. “We’ve gone from being told that suborbital is uninteresting to getting bills like S.1260 and H.R. 3245,” said Pat Bahn, CEO of TGV Rockets and Washington director of the Suborbital Institute.

Regulatory work continues

Although the appropriate regulatory regime for suborbital vehicles continues to be debated within Congress, actual regulatory activity for such vehicles is proceeding within AST. To date three companies—Armadillo Aerospace, Scales Composites, and XCOR—have started to submit applications for RLV launch licenses. Last Thursday, at the meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) at FAA Headquarters, AST’s Smith announced that XCOR was the first company whose application was now considered “sufficiently complete”. This starts a 180-day period for AST to review the application and either reject it or award XCOR the license. The announcement was a big deal: Smith, calling this a “promising new phase of commercial space transportation”, brought XCOR’s Greason to the podium to formally accept the letter officially stating the determination of the license application.

“RLV companies are dirt poor,” said Michael Kelly, cofounder of Kelly Space and Technology. “You have to be very careful when you ask things of this industry.”

(It had been assumed that XCOR was applying for a license for its proposed Xerus suborbital vehicle. However, reported that the license is actually for an interim vehicle designed to test engines and other technologies that will be used on the Xerus. The vehicle will initially fly a series of test flights, then may be put into passenger service to help defray the marginal flight costs and demonstrate that a market for such flights exists.)

While relations between industry and regulators are relatively cordial, the industry is not afraid to push back when they see regulators doing something they don’t like. At the meeting of COMSTAC’s RLV working group the day before the full COMSTAC meeting last week, a debate arose around a proposal by AST and the AIAA to begin work on developing “consensus standards for RLV safety critical systems”. Industry representatives at the meeting argued that such work is not only premature, it takes time and resources away from actually developing RLVs themselves. “RLV companies are dirt poor,” said Michael Kelly, cofounder of Kelly Space and Technology and chair of the working group. “You have to be very careful when you ask things of this industry.”