There are three US companies now capable of flying people into space—SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic—and representatives from those three companies told lawmakers on Wednesday that the industry is not yet mature enough for a new set of federal safety regulations for their customers.
A nearly 20-year moratorium on federal regulations regarding the safety of passengers on commercial human spaceflight missions is set to expire on January 1. It was scheduled to lapse at the beginning of October, but Congress added a three-month extension to a stopgap spending bill signed into law to prevent a government shutdown.
That allows a bit more time for lawmakers to write a more comprehensive commercial space bill addressing several issues important to the commercial space industry. These include industry-wide concerns about the Federal Aviation Administration’s ability to quickly license commercial launch and reentry operations, a hurdle SpaceX is eager to overcome as it waits for FAA approval to launch the second full-scale test flight of its giant Starship rocket.
There are also complaints from the industry about the large number of federal agencies, not to mention state and local entities, that space companies must go through to obtain final authorization for their missions. Industry representatives, testifying Wednesday at a hearing convened by a subcommittee of the Senate Commerce Committee, argued for legislation to combine these disparate responsibilities into one federal agency, what Wayne Monteith, a former FAA official and Air Force general, called a “one-stop shop” for regulating commercial space activities.
Because it has a firm deadline, one of the more pressing legislative priorities for Congress is deciding whether to extend the moratorium on human spaceflight regulations. The launch and reentry of commercial spacecraft is already regulated by the FAA, which is authorized to ensure the safety of the general public during these operations.
Unanimity among competitors
In a report submitted to Congress on September 29, the FAA said it believes the United States is ready for the sunset of the moratorium. “The FAA will work together with industry and other US government agencies to establish a new safety framework for space transportation providing for the safety of the crew, government astronauts, and spaceflight participants,” FAA officials wrote in the report.
But officials from SpaceX, Blue Origin, and Virgin Galactic, the three companies active in the commercial human spaceflight arena, were in lockstep with one another in Wednesday’s hearing. All agreed the moratorium on human spaceflight regulations should be extended.
Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president of build and flight reliability, said his company’s position is that the learning period should run at least a few more years. “It would be premature by several years to let the learning period lapse, so I call on Congress to extend it.”
The FAA established a rule-making committee in June to bring together representatives across the space industry to develop a new safety framework for human spaceflight safety. Their work will continue through most of next year, and until then, the FAA is not expected to institute any new regulations, even if the moratorium expires January 1.
Gerstenmaier said it’s important to understand the objective of the regulations. “Are they to help the industry? Are they to fill in a safety gap? … It’s appropriate to extend this learning period for a significant period of time while we have these discussions among ourselves, and we can make coherent and complete recommendations back to the FAA.”