Congress, Other

Industry, FAA at odds over extension of “learning period” for commercial spaceflight safety regulations

When Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004, one section of the bill restricted the FAA’s ability to promulgate regulations regarding the health and safety of spaceflight participants and crews of commercial spacecraft. While sometimes called a “moratorium” on regulations, it is more accurately a partial restriction: the law (51 USC 50905) still allows the FAA to issue regulations in the event of a serious of fatal injury during a flight, or an incident that posed a “high risk” of causing such an injury. The commercial space industry frequently refers to this restriction as a “learning period,” since the intent of the bill was to allow companies to fly vehicles and build up experience upon which regulations could later be based.

The CSLAA originally set this regulatory restriction to expire eight years after the bill’s enactment, or December 2012, after which the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) would be free to craft safety regulations. With suborbital vehicle developers experiencing delays in entering service, Congress extended the period to October 2015 in an FAA reauthorization bill two years ago. Now, Congress is weighing a further extension as part of a broader update of the Commercial Space Launch Act on tap for this year.

However, the head of FAA/AST made it clear in a hearing Tuesday by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee that he does not support another extension of the learning period. At the hearing, Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) asked George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, whether he supported one proposal to extend the restriction to eight years after the first flight to carry a spaceflight participant, an approach some in industry have endorsed, including the FAA’s own Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). “No, I do not agree with that,” Nield responded. “The US has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” he argued, providing a large set of lessons learned for commercial spaceflight providers. “For us to just put that aside and start over without taking advantage of what we’ve learned, I think is irresponsible.”

Bridenstine then asked Nield if he opposed the original eight-year regulatory restriction in the 2004 CSLAA. “That’s correct,” Nield responded, “but I’m very sensitive to the concerns that industry has about government being overreaching and burdensome and holding things back. That is not what we want to do in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. We want to enable safe and successful commercial operations.”

Some on the committee, though, supported some kind of extension of the current regulatory restriction. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), who authored the CSLAA ten years ago, said in retrospect that the restriction should have been structured “so that the eight-year timeline started with the first commercial flight carrying a spaceflight participant.” “Regulating in the absence of flight data is the worst choice we can make,” he warned.

The subcommittee chairman, Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS), also quizzed the witnesses about extending the regulatory restriction to eight years after the first participant-carrying flight (notably calling the current restriction a “learning period,” the industry’s preferred term.) “An arbitrary extension, such as the eight years that you mentioned in your question, might not be wise,” said Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University. “But I think there is, at some point, a judgement call that will have to be made to end that period, and it should be based on the technical experience we’ve had” from flights.

9 comments to Industry, FAA at odds over extension of “learning period” for commercial spaceflight safety regulations

  • Andrew Swallow

    Time to introduce very basic regulations. Something like:

    1. Thou shall not kill.

    2. If you did kill someone investigate it, find a cure and implement the cure. Report to the FAA investigation.

    3. Require use of an authorized docking interface when connecting to a different make of machine. FAA to start by authorizing say the Common Berthing Module (CBM), with grip points for the arm, and the NASA Docking System (NDS).

    4. FAA to supervise testing of the docking system when connected to the new equipment.

    5. Set up chapter headings for air quality, launch environment and space environments. Main text can be “TBD” although some of this data may be known. (Launch environment – Florida has has one problem with cold O Rings it may not want a cabin whose seals freeze for example.)

    6. Review the regulations every few years and fill the missing chapters.

    • Ferris Valyn

      We aren’t at that level of steps. For example – FAA has no authority about on orbit activities (in fact, they are explicitly bared from having that authority). And I would argue that 3 and 4 don’t apply, and shouldn’t apply.

      FAA only focuses on launch and re-entry

      • Andrew Swallow

        George Nield was making the point that the time had arrived to extend the FAA authority to cover the entire flight. The way the U.S.A. works you can guarantee that this extension will occur, just not the start date.

        Points 3 and 4 are about an interface. Interfaces need an independent person to oversee them so the side that does not comply can be determined and be given orders to correct the faults. The obvious alternative to the FAA is the courts.

        Since the interfaces are used by machines from more than one country the correct standards body is likely to be the International Standards Organization (ISO) with enforcement performed by a United Nations (UN) body. Assuming that you can trust the honesty of the UN.

  • Coastal Ron

    Nield responded. “The US has over 50 years of experience in human spaceflight,” he argued, providing a large set of lessons learned for commercial spaceflight providers.

    I understand his point, but I disagree with his conclusion. I don’t think he understands that we don’t want a commercial transportation system that is built on the lessons of the most recent government-run human spaceflight system – the Shuttle.

    Why? Because that showed that it was OK to fly a non-mature transportation system in a routine fashion, and that even after major accidents it was OK to ignore fundamental flaws in the vehicle design.

    Whereas the government is able to get away with sending it’s citizens to their deaths and not having to suffer the consequences of it actions, Commercial Crew and the various sub-orbital companies won’t have that luxury.

    While commercial companies will have their natural inherent desire NOT to kill their customers, and for the Commercial Crew program NASA is heavily involved in validating the designs and the companies involved, I’d say we are kind of back to square one, and that we are entering an entirely new learning period here.

    I support extending the CSLAA.

  • Jose

    Shorter George Nield “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

    • Andrew Swallow

      There are two replies to this.

      1. We do not want your sort around here.
      Note: People across a whole host of industries have tried for decades and spent a fortune on legal fees but the government does not go away.


      2. Hello.
      This is a map, it shows the farm track between my farm and the neighbors’ farms. The track is dangerous since people can slip in the mud. A proper paved road would be much better. Please fix.

      The directors of companies have a choice. Choose wisely.

  • Someone

    I would argue that FAA is much more likely to bend over backwards to accommodate commercial providers today when it also has the role to promote the US commercial space industry than it will be once we have a “learning period,” and FAA develops its regulations *after* it gets to see where providers screw up.

  • Until the commercial crowd has actually put up a crewed flight or two, FAA Regs would be an inhibitor. Ask Mr. Nield to come again and speak in 2017.

  • Neil Shipley

    Agree with Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA) opinion with the proviso that the FAA could probably draft some higher level reg’s based on the current state of commercial launch vehicles and spacecraft. These are orders of magnitude safer already than STS was. It’s time they stopped fluffing around and started down a consistent road based on what’s known today and then develop as the commercial company hopefully companies gain experience.

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