Last week some people noted that we are now less than a year away from a prophesied end of the world, which, according to some (mis)interpretations of the Mayan calendar, will be on December 21, 2012. Fortunately this is little more than the inspiration for a bad Roland Emmerich movie, but last week also marked the T-1 year milestone for a far more real—albeit far less apocalyptic—event.
On December 23, 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) (PL 108-492). That bill includes a provision that restricts the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) from enacting safety regulations except for cases linked to the “serious or fatal injury” of crew or participants, or events that “posed a high risk” of such injuries, during licensed or permitted flights. According to the law, that restriction expires eight years after the law’s enactment, or December 23, 2012, just under one year from now.
The restriction was intended to allow the industry to build up experience upon which future safety regulations could be based. However, the industry was developed far more slowly than anticipated in late 2004, after the prize-winning flights of SpaceShipOne. There has, in fact, been no crewed commercial suborbital flights since the final SpaceShipOne flight on October 4, 2004, although developments by Virgin Galactic, XCOR Aerospace, and others suggest that such flights could resume in the coming year. This has led to calls from some in the industry for some kind of extension to the current restriction before it expires next December.
There is, in fact, legislative language to provide an extension: the House version of the FAA reauthorization bill (HR 658) includes a provision changing that moratorium from eight years from enactment to eight years from the first licensed flight of a spaceflight participant—effectively resetting the clock and then some, since it appears unlikely such an event will take place before the end of 2012. The House passed that bill at the beginning of April, but it has been stuck in limbo ever since, awaiting a conference with the Senate version (S. 223), which does not include such a provision. That stalemate has been linked primarily to debates about language regarding labor unions in the bills. However, the Wall Street Journal reported last week that there are signs of a compromise in the works that could allow for passage of the reauthorization bill by the spring.
What will happen in conference to the House provision extending the regulation moratorium is uncertain. However, it’s worth noting that the FAA itself has previously expressed opposition to any extension. “We are not in favor of an extension of the moratorium,” said FAA/AST senior attorney Laura Montgomery during a session of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in October. Letting the moratorium expire would give the office the flexibility to act if the need arose, something that she said is missing now. “Right now, our hands are tied. Even if there was something that was obviously foreseeable that we would want to do something about to protect a participant, we can’t.”
At the same event, Courtney Graham of NASA’s Office of General Counsel said that NASA didn’t have a position on a potential extension. However, she suggested that, at least for commercial orbital spaceflight, where NASA is likely to be a major customer, the industry might prefer that the moratorium expire. Otherwise, she cautioned, NASA will be the only government agency setting regulations for crewed vehicles. “The NASA requirements are going to be the default for the industry for the foreseeable future” in such a scenario, she said. “It’s really hard to say where the flexibility in [vehicle] design is going to be if you don’t know what the FAA is going to end up with” for its regulations.