Just before Congress adjourned earlier this month for summer recess, two members of Congress introduced a bill that they argue will help streamline commercial spaceflight regulations. Congressmen Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Bill Posey (R-FL) introduced HR 3038, the Suborbital and Orbital Advancement and Regulatory Streamlining (SOARS) Act.
“I have seen firsthand how the talented people of East Kern County have grown this industry through technological advancement, and this legislation will help ensure they are not hindered in creating jobs here locally,” said McCarthy, the House Majority Whip whose district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, in a press release announcing the bill. “Our bill is a big step in streamlining FAA regulations and establishes demonstration projects for space companies supporting launch activities to safely move forward,” added Posey in the same statement.
One element of the bill would allow an experimental permit for a suborbital vehicle to remain valid even after a launch license is issued for that particular vehicle design. Under current law, the permit becomes invalid when a license for the vehicle is issued. That prevents one copy of a vehicle to perform test flights under a permit if another vehicle of the same design is operating under a license.
Another element of the bill would require the FAA to create a “demonstration project” for using experimental aircraft for “the direct and indirect support of commercial space launch and reentry activities.” The FAA would bring into this project no fewer than eight companies, with one at each currently licensed commercial spaceport. (The bill would allow the FAA to redistribute that allocation of companies if there are spaceports looking for more companies and others with none, a likely event as some spaceports are focused on vertical launch.) The demonstration period would run for two years, and the FAA would have the ability to extend it after that for two years at a time.
What would these companies would do with experimental aircraft? The “indirect support” is defined as training, testing, and other preparations for pilots, spaceflight participants, and payloads. The “direct support” element, though, could allow aircraft to support air launches of commercial vehicles—like Virgin Galactic’s WhiteKnightTwo, the air-launch platform for SpaceShipTwo—under an experimental aircraft designation, rather than as a certified aircraft.