The Government Accountability Office (GAO) issued a report yesterday titled “Commercial Space Launches: FAA Needs Continued Planning and Monitoring to Oversee the Safety of the Emerging Space Tourism Industry”. The report is a review of how the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) oversees the safety of commercial launches, and how the office is prepared to handle any significant increase in such activity should suborbital space tourism take off in the next few years. Overall, the GAO approves of AST’s current work and its plans for the future. The report does raise a few issues, including the office’s ability to hire additional qualified staff for safety oversight should launch activities increase, as well as the concerns about the dual promotional/regulatory nature of the office.
There’s a bit of a background to this report. The report was requested by Rep. James Oberstar (D-MN), the ranking member of the House Transportation Committee. Oberstar was one of the members of the House who opposed HR 5382 (the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act) two years ago, railing against what he saw as a “tombstone mentality” enshrined in the bill, which prevents AST from regulating crew and passenger before 2012 unless there’s been an accident or serious incident before then. Despite the bill’s passage at the end of the 108th Congress, Oberstar continued his opposition, first in a February 2005 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee and, at around the same time, introducing HR 656, which would rewrite the CSLAA to include additional safety provisions. The legislation was referring to the House Science Committee, which never took action on it; it doesn’t seem as thought this GAO report would do much to revive the bill.
[Disclaimer disclaimer disclaimer: Yes, my employer does work for FAA/AST. No, we're not involved with licensing. Yes, Futron reports were referenced in the GAO report. No, I was not involved in the GAO study in any way, although I had heard about it months ago.]