Oberstar strikes back

You might remember during the frenzied effort last fall to pass HR 5382, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act, opposition to the bill from some members of Congress who thought the legislation didn’t do enough to protect the safety of passengers. Their effort to insert new language into the bill, or simply block its passage, eventually failed. However, the leader of that effort is back at it again.

At Wednesday’s hearing of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation Committee, Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), ranking minority member of the full committee, spoke out strongly about the “tombstone mentality” that he believes the legislation incorporates by keeping the FAA from enacting passenger safety regulations for eight years, or until a serious accident or similar “unplanned event.” “That’s not safety,” he said in his opening remarks, “that’s being reactive, and that’s what offends me.”

Later, Oberstar had a contentious exchange with FAA Administrator Marion Blakey, who defended the limited regulatory powers her agency has for passenger safety on commercial spacecraft. Oberstar, though, wasn’t convinced by Blakey, who said that the FAA already has the power to regulate safety for the uninvolved public (which carries over to the safety of crew and passengers, she noted), and that commercial spaceflights today aren’t really transportation per se, but instead an adventure people are willing to embrace despite the risks. “Experimentation with human lives, we don’t allow that in the laboratories of the Food and Drug Administration or the National Cancer Institute,” he said, “why should we allow it on space travel?”

Oberstar wasn’t swayed either by arguments that the industry can regulate itself. At the hearing Mike Kelly, chairman of the COMSTAC RLV working group, described the new “Voluntary Personal Spaceflight Industry Consensus Standards Organization” announced Tuesday by a new “industry federation” organized by the X Prize Foundation. Kelly likened the organization to Underwriters Laboratories, which tests the safety of electrical devices. Just as few people would buy a device that doesn’t carry the UL stamp of approval, he said in his opening remarks, “when faced with the choice of flying on an approved versus non-approved spaceship, a space flyer is much more likely to accept the former.”

During the hearing, Oberstar sounded like he wasn’t planning to take action on existing law. During his opening remarks he said that “For the moment we’ll deal with this.” However, near the end of the hearing he asked a panel of witnesses, including Kelly, if they had any objection to language he proposed last fall that would require the FAA to set minimum safety standards for commercial space passengers “taking into account the inherently risky nature of human space flight.” None of the witnesses said they had any objection.

As it turns out, Oberstar has already started to take action. On Tuesday he introduced HR 656. The text of the bill hasn’t made it into Thomas yet, but according to the Congressional Record, the bill is designed to “to enhance the safety of the commercial human space flight industry.” In an “extension of remarks” inserted into the record, Oberstar said “my bill would require that FAA include, in each license it issues, minimum standards to protect the health and safety of crews and space flight participants, it would further require that, in imposing these standards, FAA must take into account the ‘inherently risky nature of human space flight.'”

HR 656 was referred to the science committee (and not, interestingly, to the transportation committee) for consideration. The bill may not get a warm reception there: science committee chairman Sherwood Boehlert (R-NY) defended HR 5382 last fall, and speaking before the subcommittee yesterday said that the bill “strikes the right regulatory balance”.

4 comments to Oberstar strikes back

  • Oberstar’s analogy with the laboratory experimentation is a very feeble one.

    Suborbital rides are more akin to Nascar Racing, or skydiving.

  • Oberstar’s name reminds me of the computer in Orson Scott Card’s _Call of Earth_ and _Earthborn_ that succeeds for generations in not letting anyone think of building a space ship.

  • TORO

    I’m not against extreme skiing – I just don’t want to fund it with veterans bill or any other bill money. Same for sub orbital thrill seekers – ride at your own risk – and using your own money, including “seed” and “prize” money.

  • There may be another risk to hitching hopes for a viable free enterprise (non-NASA) space industry on this “space tourism”. It may economically fail so quickly, or become obvious that it will, that fighting for it may be energy lost.

    John Jurist in today’s article in The Space Review mentioned an aspect of the passenger safety issue I hadn’t thought of: That those who can afford the ticket price may have life insurance or board of director prohibitions that cannot easily be waived.