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.