Back in the day when space exploration was the brave new frontier of John Glenn, Neil Armstrong and a monkey named Gordo, NASA presided over it all with a god-like presence.
In 2014, with a rocket exploding near one coast and a futuristic spaceship crashing near the other, there’s another new frontier: regulating corporate America’s rush to capitalize on the vacuum created when NASA retired from hands-on space flight.
Into that void, Congress thrust the Federal Aviation Administration, charging it with setting the guidelines for a fledgling industry that has drawn more than a half dozen companies with a variety of goals.
“It’s a little bit different than the rest of the aviation oversight that we do,” said an FAA official, “because the industry is kind of where the Wright brothers were in aviation.”
Some companies want to deliver payloads to the orbiting International Space Station; others plan to launch satellites and research missions; and some intend to carry paying passengers on joy rides into space.
The Antares rocket that exploded on takeoff from Virginia’s Eastern Shore on Oct. 28 was built by Orbital Sciences and bound for the space station carrying the unmanned Cygnus spacecraft loaded with food, water and equipment. The Virgin Galactic spacecraft that crashed on a test flight in the Mojave Desert three days later was designed to carry passengers into flight.
The fact that the spacecraft flew under two different FAA guidelines underscores the nascent nature of space flight regulation. It also reflects the challenge federal regulators face in governing emerging technologies: Step in too soon with a heavy hand and it may stifle creative thinking.
A current example: The people developing the new breed of autonomous cars have begged state and federal regulators not to impose rigid guidelines until they can refine how best to make things work.
“Congress has taken the viewpoint that they understand that [commercial space flight] is an evolving industry,” said the official, who asked not to be named in order to speak freely, “and if you put a regulatory framework in place that was as constrictive or as comprehensive as it is in commercial aviation, it would basically kill the industry before it got off the ground.”
That doesn’t mean that commercial space vehicles are unregulated, just that there are fewer specific rules than for commercial and private aviation.
For example, launch sites and launches must be licensed by the FAA, meeting safety, environmental and liability standards, including insurance coverage for injury or property damage. The Virginia facility and the Oct. 28 launch both had been sanctioned by the FAA.
Less restrictive permits are issued by the FAA for experimental flights, like the Virgin Galactic flight that was conducted by a contractor, Scaled Composites, from the FAA-licensed facility in the Mojave Desert.
“The activity in the Mojave Desert was an experimental test activity, which we permit but we don’t license,” the official said. “So that was the equivalent of Boeing going out and doing testing [of an airplane].”
The FAA has licensed eight launch facilities and more than 200 launches.
FAA inspectors monitor licensed activities. The agency can fine companies that violate its requirements, and can suspend or revoke a license to operate.
Though Congress anticipated commercial space flight 30 years ago — not long after NASA launched its first space shuttle — it embraced the impending reality of those flights in 2004 by creating a regulatory framework.
Companies were required to meet training and security standards, and to brief passengers that space travel came with its risks and get their “informed consent.”
“We have this informed consent requirement, but we don’t have a lot of specific rules that say ‘if you want to go do this you have to meet the, you know, following 37 rules,’ ” the official said.
The imperative for commercial space flights came about in the aftermath of the 2003 explosion of the space shuttle Columbia, which killed seven astronauts. An investigating commission said that NASA had to get out of the business of launching its own spacecraft.
“What grew out of the Columbia space shuttle accident was the recommendation that they retire space shuttle vehicles because they were getting too old to be either as reliable as they had been and were incredibly expensive to maintain,” the official said. “They’re now very reliant on the whole commercial space industry to be able to do these resupply missions.”
The future regulatory challenge will require dealing with a variety of designs and intentions. Some commercial spacecraft are intended to reach sustainable earth orbit or go beyond, while a whole other class are suborbital vehicles that will kiss space at about 62 miles — and give passengers a thrill — but then return to Earth.
The FAA, with its regulatory powers, will assist the National Transportation Safety Board, which is not empowered to regulate, in investigating the Virgin Galactic crash, which killed one pilot and critically injured another.
It will be the first time the NTSB has led an investigation into a space launch with passengers on board.
Part of the NTSB investigation, said its chairman, Christopher Hart, will be “to see whether the oversight was adequate, to the extent that there is oversight in this industry.”