At Wednesday afternoon’s meeting of the RLV Working Group of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) at FAA Headquarters, there was a spirited discussion among participants about the status and fate of HR 3752. At least one person present had concerns about the bill because of the language used in the bill to define suborbital rockets:
‘suborbital rocket’ means a rocket-propelled vehicle intended for flight on a suborbital trajectory whose thrust is greater than its lift for the majority of the powered portion of its flight.
While this covers a wide range of vehicles, from vertically-launched rockets to air-launched rocket-powered vehicles (like SpaceShipOne), there is a concern that it might exclude vehicles that take off under jet power, “self-ferry” some distance from the launch site using its jets, then fire its rocket engines for a suborbital flight. (An example is the XP from Rocketplane Ltd., formerly Pioneer Rocketplane.) Those vehicles might not strictly meet the definition because of their use of jet engines, and thus would either not be able to get a suborbital RLV license, or else would have to get both a launch license and an aviation certificate. Moreover, while suborbital RLVs can enter revenue service with a launch license, aircraft on experimental certificates cannot, thus requiring a potentially more expensive and time-consuming certification process.
This concern is not new, but has taken on added urgency for those most affected by it now that the bill has passed the House and is now sitting in the Senate. While others in the suborbital industry—as well as some FAA/AST officials—believe that this is not a big issue, and vehicles like the XP can get launch licenses, companies like Rocketplane Ltd. don’t want to be the test case for an ambiguous issue.
The obvious solution would be to change the definition of suborbital rockets in the Senate version of the legislation to make sure such borderline vehicles are clearly included. This, though, would make the Senate version different from the House version, requiring a conference committee to hash out the differences (assuming that the Senate does decide to accede to and accept HR 3752). However, in a year like this, with much bigger issues to contend with and the slow rate of legislative progress in the Senate, that could be fatal. As one attendee put it, “If this bill goes to conference, it will not happen this year.” That would mean starting all over again in the next Congress…