Congress

Mr. Rutan goes to Washington

Burt Rutan was the star witness at a House Science Committee space subcommittee hearing Wednesday on future markets for commercial spaceflight. Rutan, not surprisingly, used the hearing to argue that the current regulatory environment—cemented in place with the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act last year—is not effective for “aircraft-like” commercial suborbital spacecraft. As he bluntly put it in his opening statement, the launch licensing process administered by FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) “just about ruined my program”. Later, he took a swipe at both AST and a company just down the flight line at Mojave Airport from Scaled Composites:

In fact, while my company was already flying initial test flights and waiting for time-critical responses from AST, during 2003 and 2004, AST found time to expend extensive resources processing and awarding a launch license to a company that did not even have a vehicle in construction, or even funding for the project!

While he didn’t explicitly state it, he appeared to be referring to XCOR Aerospace, which received an AST launch license a year ago, a few weeks after SpaceShipOne got its license. (Disclaimer: in my day job I do work with AST, but not with anything regarding licensing.)

However, Rutan’s comments didn’t elicit much of a reaction from members of the committee, many of whom were instrumental in getting the CSLAA passed last year. Rutan’s comments were not mentioned in the official post-hearing subcommittee press release, although they were alluded to in a separate press release by the committee’s Democratic Caucus. Mark Udall (D-CO), the ranking member of the subcommittee, did ask Rutan for more information on the regulatory process, and said in the release that he received “some very constructive comments on the need to ensure that safety is properly addressed.” Overall, though, the subcommittee’s members spent far more time heaping praise on Rutan that debating regulatory issues.

One area where Rutan did get more traction from the subcommittee was on export control issues. Rutan and Will Whitehorn, president of Virgin Galactic, both noted that they had run into obstacles dealing with export control issues (an issue because, although the “SpaceShipTwo” vehicle Scaled is building for Virgin will not initially be exported, Virgin is a UK company) that has delayed Virgin’s formal order for the spacecraft. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) used this as another opportunity to lobby for a “two-tier” export control regime that would loosen export control regulations when dealing with allied nations. At the end of the hearing, subcommittee chairman Ken Calvert (R-CA) promised to work with Rohrbacher on these issues.

8 comments to Mr. Rutan goes to Washington

  • Jonathan Goff

    Jeff,

    While I respect Rutan’s accomplishments a lot, his quote is quite misleading. When Rutan finally got his act together and decided to get a launch license, AST more or less completely sidelined XCOR’s work until they were done with Rutan’s, specifically because Rutan had flyable hardware. XCOR’s work on getting a launch license in no way (to my knowledge) impeded or slowed down Scaled’s launch license application. Burt basically drug his feet and tried getting around the launch license requirement until he finally realized that the government really wasn’t going to let him fly unless he got one. Then he descended on AST and pushed his application through. When that happened, AST had to pull pretty much all of its people off of the XCOR license and throw them at Burt’s license. Had he actually tried in even the slightest manner to work with the AST in advance, he would have had a much better time. In fact, I’m willing to bet that XCOR’s pioneering work in the area actually helped speed up their application, not slow it down.

    ~Jon

  • AST did not exactly rush to get XCOR’s license approved. XCOR had their application substantially complete on November 10. AST was statutorially required to go yea or nay on the XCOR application within 180 days which they satisfied with only a couple of weeks to spare on April 23.

  • Jonathan Goff

    Sam,

    Yeah, AST backburnered them while they were working on SS1′s license, and only got back to XCOR’s application sometime in early April 2004, IIRC.

    ~Jon

  • Jeff Greason

    One correction; AST delivered our license exactly 180 days after documenting it as “substantially complete” — at the last legally permissable instant, not “with a couple of weeks to spare”.

  • Falco

    I’m kinda disappointed that the committee didn’t address Rutan’s concerns more. While it does seem that Rutan has had his feather’s ruffled a little by AST, he’s still right, and he still has a perfect record behind him, which means something.

    And I can’t for the life of me get a recording of the meeting. CSPAN isn’t showing it, and I can’t get the webcasts to run.

  • Jonathan Goff

    Jeff,

    That’s what I thought I remembered. But am I
    doing my math wrong or getting the dates wrong?
    Unless I’m screwing up somwhere isn’t April 23,
    2004 less than 180 days after Nov 10, 2003.

    That said, your info makes the point all the more
    clear that Rutan’s accusation that AST was wasting
    time on XCOR’s license that could have been spent
    on Scaled’s is just silly. Had he actually tried
    working with the AST even slightly in advance, he
    could have avoided any schedule delays and cost
    overruns. I’d love to see the AST launch license
    process streamlined a bunch more (cause MSS is
    going to be running that gauntlet in the next year
    or so hopefully), and hopefully the provisions in
    the new Commercial Space Launch bill that was
    passed last year for Experimental Licenses will
    help. We’ll have to see, no?

    ~Jon

  • Randall Clague

    Jon,

    The “sufficiently complete” letter from AST is dated 10/29/2003, and says they logged our application into their licensing system on 10/27/2003.

    -R

  • Jonathan Goff

    Randall,

    Ah, that makes sense now. You guys didn’t announce
    it on your site till several days later, and the
    announcement was worded such that it made it appear
    as though you hadn’t been declared sufficiently
    complete till November 10th. I had remembered it
    being the last day at Space Access, but when Sam
    Dinkin mentioned the dates, it made me second guess
    my memory. Cool, as I said though, it only more
    thoroughly makes my point.

    ~Jon