FAA issues proposed guidelines for private spaceflight regulation

 - January 30, 2007, 11:08 AM

A relaxed regulatory environment and increasing development in the fledgling space tourism industry may lead to opportunities for privately owned passenger-carrying space vehicles by the end of the decade, suggested government and industry officials at space-related hearings and conferences in February.

“Human spaceflight is no longer the exclusive realm of government,” said U.S. Secretary of Transportation Norman Mineta during a presentation at the eighth annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference. “I suspect that, by the time the space shuttle is retired in 2010, private industry may be putting more people i
nto space than NASA.”

Spaceflight Guidelines
Just months after Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004 to address commercial passenger-carrying space vehicles, the FAA’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST) released proposed guidelines for commercial spaceflight crews and passengers during the AST-hosted conference. The two sets of guidelines, one for flight crews and one for spaceflight “participants,” total only 26 printed pages and represent the first step in implementing formal regulations governing private spaceflight.

“This isn’t a rulemaking, and these aren’t even actual guidelines. They’re draft proposed guidelines,” said Jeff Greason, president of rocket engine manufacturer XCOR Aerospace, during a February interview with AIN. Based in Mojave, Calif., XCOR launched 15 flights with a prototype passenger-capable suborbital spacecraft in 2002 and has been involved in talks with the AST since Greason co-founded the company in 1999. “It’s an extremely tentative first step that the FAA is taking at the direction of Congress.”

The CSLAA mandates that the FAA issue proposed regulations relating to crew, spaceflight participants and permits for launch or re-entry of reusable suborbital rockets no later than December 23 this year. It also directs the FAA to issue final regulations no later than June 23 next year, barely a year before Sir Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic expects to begin U.S.-launched commercial space tourism flights in mid-2007.

The act will not give the FAA the authority to regulate space vehicles with the same level of specificity as the FARs currently regulate the manufacture of aircraft until 2013, and then only if “the operation of those vehicles results in death, serious injury or a dangerous close call.”

Unimpeded Development
“Our approach at the Department of Transportation will be to give the industry the freedom to develop, mindful that it is still in its infancy,” Mineta said.

The proposed guidelines reflect the unwillingness of the agency to draft absolutes at this early stage in the rulemaking process. Whereas FAR Part 61.3(a) clearly states that a person may not act as pilot-in-command unless that person has a valid pilot’s certificate or authorization, the proposed space guidelines state that pilots of suborbital reusable launch vehicles (RLV) “should possess an FAA pilot certificate…a valid FAA 2nd-class medical certificate…and should hold ratings to operate one or more aircraft with similar characteristics for as many phases of the mission as practicable.”

The wording allows the FAA to suggest a certain level of pilot experience without setting out requirements for pilots that might not fit the technologies involved. For example, though Scaled Composites’ SpaceShipOne, currently the only passenger-capable suborbital RLV flying, turns into a glider once its hybrid rocket motor is shut off or runs out of fuel, not all RLV pilots would need glider ratings since other vehicles may use air-breathing engines upon re-entry.

“Developing regulations for future vehicles is extremely difficult because you don’t know what kind of vehicle you’re talking about,” Greason said.

Though the guidelines suggest specific elements for crewmember and participant training, and briefly address medical exams for both types of flier, they exert a forceful tone only when dealing with informed consent and only because the CSLAA has already defined the law on this issue.

The CSLAA requires RLV operators to inform spaceflight participants in writing about the risks of the launch and re-entry, including the safety record of the vehicle type and that the U.S. government has not certified the launch vehicle as safe for carrying crew or passengers, and to obtain written consent from each participant before the flight.

“Commercial space launches are inherently dangerous and risky operations,” said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey during a February 9 hearing before the U.S. House aviation subcommittee. “As a result, the approach to safety in the commercial space arena differs from the approach for civil aviation, where safety is achieved with the high reliability of today’s aircraft…The mission of the FAA is to ensure that each rocket that fails has a safety system that ensures no damage is done to life or property on the ground.”

Spaceflight Contenders
During her remarks, Blakey reported that the FAA licensed 14 commercial launches last year, “the most since 1999 and more than what both NASA and the Department of Defense launched in 2004.” While Atlas rockets accounted for five of these launches, Burt Rutan’s SpaceShipOne accounted for another five licenses, including test flights and the September and October 2004 launches that won the Ansari X Prize.

This year may prove to be even busier for the AST, which at press time had licensed five commercial launches through last month, though all were for expendable launch vehicles. However, a few new RLV developments should begin test flying late this year and early next year, including Virgin Galactic’s VSS Enterprise, a five- to seven-passenger spacecraft built by Scaled Composites and modeled after the White Knight/SpaceShipOne concept, and the Rocketplane XP, a two-passenger RLV built from a highly modified Lear 24.

Produced by Oklahoma-based Rocketplane, the XP retains the basic fuselage and engines of the Learjet but incorporates a new set of wings and adds an Orbital Technologies liquid oxygen/RP-1 rocket engine, among other modifications. Under a typical flight profile, the XP will take off from the Oklahoma Spaceport, located near Clinton, under jet power and fly to an altitude of nearly 20,000 feet, where the rocket engine will fire for two minutes to send the vehicle to an altitude of about 62 miles.

Once the vehicle returns to the lower atmosphere and drops to subsonic speeds, the jet engines will reignite for a powered landing back at the spaceport. Rocketplane plans to conduct the XP’s first flight early next year, with commercial operations beginning in early 2007.

Since Rutan captured the Ansari X Prize in October, the space tourism industry blossomed in the glare of media attention and general public acknowledgement. Virgin Galactic, established quietly nearly a decade ago with an idea but no usable spacecraft, suddenly became a household brand name after it was featured on Branson’s reality television show, The Rebel Billionaire, earlier this year and in a 2005 Super Bowl commercial.

Five companies, including American Express and a Norwegian chocolate manufacturer, are already advertising suborbital flights as membership or sweepstakes prizes. Space tourism giant Space Adventures, which booked Dennis Tito and Mark Shuttleworth on their respective 2001 and 2002 historic flights to the International Space Station and offers near-space rides in MiG and Sukhoi fighters, reportedly has booked more than 100 reservations for suborbital flights on XCOR’s two-person Xerus RLV or a Russian-built Cosmopolis 21 based on the SpaceShipOne concept, whichever comes to market sooner. SpaceShipOne hybrid rocket engine supplier SpaceDev is also working its own suborbital RLV based on NASA’s X-34 spaceplane, with the goal of conducting operations by 2010.

Although this flurry of activity focuses mainly on suborbital space tourism flights that have no destination other than reaching an altitude at which participants “experience” space, there is some talk regarding future suborbital point-to-point travel. However, the absence of proven RLV safety and reliability data makes scheduled suborbital airline service still out of immediate reach.

“Point-to-point travel is a long way off,” Greason said. “I would be surprised to see any type of scheduled or charter point-to-point transportation of goods or people within 15 years.”

For individuals willing to take the risk, however, privately owned RLVs that can use suborbital flight trajectories to reach Tokyo from New York in three hours– similar to the performance expected from the National Aerospace Plane proposed more than 20 years ago–may become realistic by the end of the decade, especially if acquisition costs can rival those of current business jets.

Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen fully funded Rutan’s SpaceShipOne project–which included development and operation of a simulator, mission control, engine test stand, the White Knight carrier aircraft and the SpaceShipOne spacecraft–with $25 million, less than the price of a fully equipped Gulfstream G450. The Rocketplane XP is being developed for approximately $30 million.

Though these concepts are being built for the space-tourism market, they use conventional runways for takeoff and landing, which make them more attractive for point-to-point operations than a vertical rocket design.

“I actually think that it’s quite possible that recreational private spacecraft could become viable before charter, cargo or passenger service,” Greason said. “The FAA has been forward-looking, and it has been flexible, but it can only move so fast.”

While the RLV industry is working toward safely making suborbital tourism a reality, the FAA is trying to give developers the regulatory room they need while still maintaining some oversight. “We are working on rules for experimental permits for commercial space transportation that will shorten the time and the burden on launch vehicle developers who are in the testing stage,” Mineta said. “In a matter of years, the sky will no longer be the limit for adventurous travelers.”