While a planned reauthorization of NASA this year is attracting headlines, another space-related priority for members of Congress this year is a reauthorization of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act. At FAA/AST’s annual conference last week, members of Congress and their staffs outlined several potential changes to existing legislation, from an extension of launch indemnification to granting the office authority for regulating on-orbit activities.
“I would suggest we could look forward to, at long last, a reauthorization of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation,” said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), vice-chairman of the House Science Committee, in a speech at the conference Wednesday. “It’s becoming very evident even to members of Congress that this industry is critical and we need to reauthorize that legislation.”
One issue will be the “evolving role of the FAA in regulating safety,” said Ann Zulkosky, senior professional staff on the Senate Commerce Committee, during a panel session at the conference Wednesday afternoon. AST retains its role in protecting the uninvolved public, but is restricted by law from promulgating regulations covering the safety of spaceflight participants. That provision, included in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004, the last major update to commercial launch legislation, was set to expire last December, but an FAA reauthorization bill last year extended it until October 2015.
Another issue, Zulkosky said, would be the issue of on-orbit authority. AST currently has the ability to regulate launches and reentries, but activities in space after launch and before reentry fall into a gray area, with no single agency having oversight or other authority for all activities. (Some agencies do have specific authority on some issues, like the FCC on spacecraft communications.) “We’ll certainly be having conversations with FAA as we look to update legislation in this area,” she said, noting that some in industry had proposed giving FAA that authority.
Another topic that will likely either be included in any reauthorization, or done in parallel with it, is another extension of the commercial launch indemnification system. That system was extended for only one year in legislation passed early last month, although the original House version of the bill had included a two-year extension.
“We would love to see it extended for a long period,” said Chris Kunstadter of XL Insurance, the chairman of the Business Legal Working Group of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), an industry group that advises FAA/AST, at the conference on Thursday. One issue is the calculation of the “maximum probable loss” to third parties in the event of a launch accident, a level to which launch licensees are liable for, with the government indemnifying any losses above that level. FAA and COMSTAC will look for ways to improve the accuracy of that calculation over the next several months, he said.
One key industry official welcomed plans to examine these and other issues with current commercial launch law. “It is something that should be reopened and looked at in the context of the current state of play,” said Tim Hughes, vice president and chief counsel of SpaceX, during a conference panel Wednesday. Hughes helped draft the CSLAA as a staff member of the House Science Committee back in 2004, and he said they didn’t anticipate then some developments that have taken place since that bill’s passage. “It was not contemplated that there would be commercial entities carrying NASA astronauts to the International Space Station,” he said.
Rohrabacher said that it remained vital that FAA recognize that commercial spaceflight is still an emerging industry and not over-regulate it. He noted that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation was originally placed directly under the Secretary of Transportation, and only later moved to the FAA. “The culture of the FAA is based on a mandate to protect passenger safety,” he said, but argued that commercial spaceflight, being far less mature than aviation, requires a different regulatory philosophy. “That’s a very different mandate and a very different approach, but it’s necessary for us to recognize that if we are to be successful in moving the industry forward.”
Rohrabacher said that FAA was, for the time being, doing a good job treating aviation and spaceflight differently, but warned he would seek action to move the office out of the FAA should the situation change. “Ultimately, if that proves too difficult for the FAA to reconcile, we may end up having to move this whole job back to the office of the Secretary of Transportation.”