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.