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The other December 2012 countdown

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.

27 comments to The other December 2012 countdown

  • A M Swallow

    Simply because you are introducing regulations does not mean that you have to introduce a lot of regulations. The FAA can always add more in later years.

    Initially the FAA regulations can ban murder, manslaughter, theft, vandalism, assault, piracy, extortion, fraud, rape, conspiracy and endangering the vehicle.

  • DCSCA

    There has, in fact, been no crewed commercial suborbital flights since the final SpaceShipOne flight on October 4, 2004…

    <– and that's a stretch calling it 'commercial' as it was one of two test flights with one pilot aboard, flown in a repeat flight within a 14 day time frame to win a prize, not to turn a profit as an on going capitalist concern. That's a contest, hardly an operational commercial enterprise. Still, there is some potential there, and it would be all the more significant if this was December of 1961, not the end of 2011. Crewed orbital spaceflight and suborbital flight is a fifty year old success story for government funded and managed space programs fueled by geopolitical forces and exploratory motives for political and scierntific 'profit,' not for financial profit. Commercial HSF, whose goal is to make a buck and exploit, not explore, has yet to be accomplished. Because there's no appreciable ROI from the limited market at hand such an enterprise would try to service. Aunt Bea and Opie are trying to put food on the table and survive these days, not lining up to take Alan Shepard-styled joy rides at $200,000 a pop. Tick-tock, tick-tock.

  • gregori

    And government funded joyrides at $2 Billion a pop are going to be better……how?

    The evil capitalists make a profit by providing a service or product that people would actually want to buy. They have to actually make their customers somewhat happy. They can’t force you to buy it and if the product sucks, they can go out of business.

    Government funded and managed programs are not like this. They can spend the citizen’s money in anyway they like without value for money or restraint. The public doesn’t get a say in what product they think is better. Even when that product kills people, repeatedly. The companies get rewarded regardless. The government by decree, uses the public money any way it wishes and the public is effectively forced to buy from politically picked product choices.

    The government not making a profit doesn’t make it more moral. Companies actually have to provide something of benefit to make a profit. There is no control on the government like this. It can just use force to obtain money from people. Companies that make crappy products can die.

  • Jeff Foust

    Mr./Ms. DCSCA, regarding SpaceShipOne: “and that’s a stretch calling it ‘commercial’ as it was one of two test flights with one pilot aboard, flown in a repeat flight within a 14 day time frame to win a prize, not to turn a profit as an on going capitalist concern.”

    Paul Allen noted in his memoir that he received a “net positive return” on his investment in SpaceShipOne, when the prize money and licensing revenue for the vehicle’s technology is accounted for. Moreover, all the SpaceShipOne suborbital flights were categorized as “commercial” by FAA/AST and licensed as such; their opinion carries a bit more weight than a pseudonymous blog commenter.

  • Fred Willett

    Some, possibly many folks doubt there is a market for commercial spaceflight. But the fact remains that four companies at least are investing their own good money in the hope of proving that there is a market. As well another bunch of companies are investing in sub orbital flight in the hopes of one day extending their market to orbit.
    Time will tell if they succeed or fail.
    In the mean time you’ve got to admire their daring.
    I can only wish them, and all of you
    A happy new year

  • @DCSCA:

    There has, in fact, been no crewed commercial suborbital flights since the final SpaceShipOne flight on October 4, 2004…

    Sure there was. Last one ended this year, in fact.

  • DCSCA

    @Jeff Foust wrote @ December 30th, 2011 at 6:17 pm

    =yawn= Nonsense. Don’t fig leaf it. ‘Profit,’ slim as it was, came from the prize and merchandizing goodies like coffee mugs and T-shirts, Jeff. But honestly, the objective is to generate profits from regularly scheduled, human suborbital spaceflight operations, not licencing products around it like a Star Wars film. And honestly, how else was the FAA going to catagorize it as the two flights were flown specifically within a given time frame with one pilot to win the prize money– it certainly wasn’t an experimental military vehicle and most definitely not inaugural flights of an on going profitable commercial HSF operation as on December 31, 2011. The goal is to make a buck flying paying passengers up and down. As the year ends, that remains a no-go.

  • vulture4

    Commercial spaceflight is a typical luxury good; demand is highly sensitive to price, as was air travel in the early years. At $20M/seat-to-LEO, the price proposed by Musk, there is indeed a small commercial market, as shown by Space Adventures, but it is only about two seats per year, not large enough to create a viable market for even one provider, let alone four. If market price can be reduced to about $1-2M per seat there may be a large enough market for commercial viability for two carriers (50-100 seats per year). This kind of cost reduction is no mean feat, but without it even government funded human spaceflight cannot be productive and in the long run is not sustainable.

    The goal of the Commercial Crew program is to fund and incentivise private investment to begin work on lower cost reusable launch systems (as discussed in various aspects by all the CCrew proposers) and meanwhile close the “gap” in US government human launch capability created by the shutdown of the Shuttle program. Of course it will require time; several similar attempts at RLV development were initiated in the 90′s but cancelled by the Bush Administration in favor of Constellation/SLS/Orion, which (as Kraft and mcCain have noted) is obviously unsustainable and counterproductive.

    On the plus side, the central cause for the failure of the RLV program in the 90′s may have been NASA micromanagement. NASA managers unfortunately 1) do not understand hardware development, but 2) think they do. But NASA can still “make it happen”. The looser relationship possible under Space Act Agreements may provide a better chance for success.

  • vulture4

    Regarding the FAA, it appears to want to work in partnership with industry. I have seen little evidence the FAA wants to close down commercial spaceflight with a mountain of regulations. I don’t think the end of the moratorium will have any practical effect. Moreover the most onerous restrictions are imposed not by FAA or NASA, but by the DOD Eastern Range, which creates a mountain of challenges and has no real incentive to facilitate commercial operations. The FAA might take over some of this authority and be more hospitable.

  • Dave Huntsman

    It’s unclear to me whether the FAA/AST attorney is speaking just for the legal office – or for AST. if she’s truly speaking for AST, I’m a little surprised at their opposition to an extension; since there is no argument against the extension they could use that couldn’t also have been used against the original grace period, which AST supported.

  • It’s unclear to me whether the FAA/AST attorney is speaking just for the legal office – or for AST.

    Based on personal discussions, she is speaking for AST. That doesn’t mean, of course, that she is expessing her personal opinion.

  • amightywind

    Paul Allen noted in his memoir that he received a “net positive return” on his investment in SpaceShipOne

    You newspace types sure play fast and loose with the notion of profit, which is why you have no credibility. What else would Allen say in his own autobiography, that he lost 10%? Perhaps he profited from the sale of Scaled Composites to Northrup, but it is a stretch to suggest he profited from the flight of SpaceShip1 itself. Remember also that he earned a one time non-market’ prize. He did not perform a useful service for anyone. I do have respect for his efforts, but the notion that they are currently profitable is absurd.

    NASA has become entirely too preoccupied with ‘commercial space’. They have let their own programs go to the dogs.

  • Perhaps he profited from the sale of Scaled Composites to Northrup

    Yet another moronic statement. Paul Allen never had any equity in Scaled Composites.

    He did not perform a useful service for anyone. I do have respect for his efforts, but the notion that they are currently profitable is absurd.

    No, what’s absurd is the stupid and ignorant notion that “had a net positive return” = “currently profitable.”

  • Coastal Ron

    amightywind wrote @ January 1st, 2012 at 10:40 am

    Perhaps he profited from the sale of Scaled Composites to Northrup…

    We all make typo’s, but I’d just like to point out that it’s “Northrop“, not “Northrup”.

  • Fred Willett

    Allen owns the rights to the technology developed by SS1, and made money licencing that back to Scaled for SS2 development. That’s where the “net profit” line comes from.

  • We all make typo’s, but I’d just like to point out that it’s “Northrop“, not “Northrup”.

    And it’s not “Northrop.” It’s Northrop Grumman.

  • NASA Fan

    The Obama administrations fancy towards Commercial Space, via NASA Space Act grants, is nothing more than the federal government playing venture capitalist. Not a role for the government as the Energy Dept has so painfully learned.

  • The Obama administrations fancy towards Commercial Space, via NASA Space Act grants, is nothing more than the federal government playing venture capitalist.

    No, it’s not. There are no loan guarantees involved. It is nothing like what DoE has been doing.

  • Coastal Ron

    NASA Fan wrote @ January 2nd, 2012 at 3:12 pm

    The Obama administrations fancy towards Commercial Space, via NASA Space Act grants, is nothing more than the federal government playing venture capitalist.

    I think you should look into what the Space Act Agreements are and what Venture Capitalists do, because you are wrong.

    As a refresher, this is what Space Act Agreements are:

    The term “agreement” in its broadest context includes any transaction the Space Act authorizes the Agency to conclude (i.e., contracts, leases, grants, cooperative agreements, or other transactions). Agreements establish a set of legally enforceable promises between NASA and the other party to the agreement, requiring a commitment of NASA resources (including personnel, funding, services, equipment, expertise, information, or facilities) to accomplish stated objectives.

    Since money is only transferred when agreed upon work is finished, then the current round of CCDev SAA’s would not be grants. And since NASA does not retain an ownership position in the companies based on the money they are paying the companies, they are not providing venture capital.

    If you look at what is motivating both sides (NASA and the CCDev participants), then it’s easier to see that what they are doing is more like a partnership than anything else. NASA needs reliable and redundant access to the ISS for their personnel, and the participating companies want to offer crew transportation services for not only NASA, but anyone needing to get to LEO. This happens all the time in the commercial world, so bending over backwards to define it as something nefarious is pretty silly.

  • NASA Fan wrote:

    The Obama administrations fancy towards Commercial Space, via NASA Space Act grants, is nothing more than the federal government playing venture capitalist. Not a role for the government as the Energy Dept has so painfully learned.

    Just curious … Did you raise a complaint about this in 1985 when the Reagan administration amended the National Aeronautics and Space Act to require NASA to prioritize commercial space?

    Section 102c:

    The Congress declares that the general welfare of the United States requires that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (as established by title II of this Act) seek and encourage, to the maximum extent possible, the fullest commercial use of space.

    Or how’s about in January 2006 when the Bush administration began seeking proposals for commercial cargo and crew:

    http://www.spaceref.com/news/viewpr.html?pid=18791

    You seem quick to heap blame on Obama for complying with a Reagan-era law and continuing a Bush-era program.

  • reader

    the objective is to generate profits from regularly scheduled, human suborbital spaceflight operations, not licencing products around it like a Star Wars film.

    Merchandise, advertisements, licensing products and media rights are all legitimate revenue sources for a human spaceflight enterprise, suborbital or otherwise.
    If one breaks even or even takes a slight loss in operations, but other revenue sources compensate with a healthy profit, whats wrong with that ?

  • ROBERT OLER

      NASA Fan wrote @ January 2nd, 2012 at 3:12 pm
    The Obama administrations fancy towards Commercial Space, via NASA Space Act grants, is nothing more than the federal government playing venture capitalist. Not a role for the government as the Energy Dept has so painfully learned.”

    I don’t have a problem with either approach ( the DOE or commercial space approach) although you should at least have the intellectual horsepower to acknowledge that they are different.

    the role of the government is by its actions and laws and regulations is to promote things which are deemed by the political leaders in power and who are responsible at the ballot to the people….is to do things in the national interest.

    It is perceived in the national interest to have “family farms” ie ones not owned by big corporations so there are a lot of things the federal government does to help keep those going.

    I believe, you might not that it is in the national interest to promote things like distributed solar power. And I regret the efforts that fail and cost the government and the people money BUT that amount is nothing compared with what even Cx wasted just wasted much less boondoggles like the Iraq war….which most who are crapped at the DOE efforts supported and have no regrets for.

    I think it is in the national interest to promote human space flight and national space industries outside of the government space industrial complex…you might not but on that we just disagree.

    Part of what makes me reject the comments of people like you as uninformed is that you draw comparisons where one is not valid.
    ,
    What DOE did is not like the Commercial crew/reapply. You and Whittington and wind and all the other pro big government people can say it is…but like saying Saddam was Hitler…it did not make it so

    Don’t be an intellectual Dremel tool

    RGO

    PS Happy New YEAR

  • NASA Fan

    Venture capitalists always want something out of the ‘partnership’ for the pleasure of their investment. So too WH/NASA via Space Grant process.

    Nothing illegal going on. Space Grants are the way to go as a cheaper alternative of typical ‘cost plus development’ processes. Lets see if the rest of NASA starts using them the way HSF is now using them for COTS and CC

    Tell me, if Space X goes belly up, do they owe NASA anything?

  • Venture capitalists always want something out of the ‘partnership’ for the pleasure of their investment.

    Venture capitalists want a return on their investment. NASA wants transportation services.

    Space Grants are the way to go as a cheaper alternative of typical ‘cost plus development’ processes. Lets see if the rest of NASA starts using them the way HSF is now using them for COTS and CC

    Neither COTS nor Commercial Crew utilize Space Grants. They use Space Act Agreements.

    Tell me, if Space X goes belly up, do they owe NASA anything?

    No. But it’s kind of ignorant to imagine that would even happen, given their launch backlog.

  • common sense

    @ NASA Fan wrote @ January 3rd, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    “Tell me, if Space X goes belly up, do they owe NASA anything?”

    It’s getting a little tiresome to tell over and over again.

    SpaceX, when it comes to COTS or CCDev, just like the other contenders, do not owe NASA anything. The reason is that they are being paid for a service, a service that takes place BEFORE they are paid. They launch an F9 they get cash, they resupply ISS they get cash. If they do not perform the service they do not get paid. If they go belly up then NASA does not pay them – modulo some legalities I would assume.

    What do you think they might owe NASA?

    BTW it is not called “Space Grants”. They are called Space Act Agreements. There are differences between a grant and an agreement. Run some search. SAAs are used all over NASA, not just HSF.

  • vulture4

    SpaceX would not owe NASA anything as they have only been paid for services delivered. Unlike the other US launch provider, SpaceX has a significant commercial satellite manifest; a total loss of government support would put human spaceflight work on hold but the company would not collapse.

  • Coastal Ron

    NASA Fan wrote @ January 3rd, 2012 at 2:59 pm

    Venture capitalists always want something out of the ‘partnership’ for the pleasure of their investment.

    You still don’t understand what Venture Capitalists are, and what they do. They invest other peoples money on the premise that they will return a profit. They are not “partnering”, nor are they doing it for pleasure. VC’s will also take positions on the company’s Board of Directors so they can oversee their investment, and they may also insist on the company hiring specific personnel for the same reason. It’s business, and a cut throat one at that (I know a few VC’s, and I know people with VC investments).

    And no, NASA is not acting as a VC to any of the COTS or CCDev participants.

    So too WH/NASA via Space Grant process.

    Why do you feel the need to make up terminology when the correct terminology has already been pointed out to you? NASA is using Space Act Agreements, not “NASA Space Grants”.

    Tell me, if Space X goes belly up, do they owe NASA anything?

    If you had read what Space Act Agreements are, and how the CCDev program is structured (i.e. milestone payments), then you would already know that all CCDev work is pay for performance – NASA only pays for work completed in the agreed upon way.

    That being the case, no, a failed CCDev participant would not owe NASA anything if they stopped work on the CCDev program, for whatever reason. And NASA would not owe the CCDev participant for uncompleted milestones.

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