While decades of NASA's space program resulted in a framework for dealing with the aftermath of accidents involving publicly funded missions that involved major commissions and the input from multiple agencies, the SpaceShipTwo accident serves as the trial run for investigating manned commercial space accidents.
The Federal Aviation Administration does have the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, also known as AST. However the office does not certify the safety of spacecrafts the same way the FAA certifies the safety of passenger airliners. Instead, it licenses launches, but that licensing is all about the safety of people on the ground or making sure the spacecrafts do not hit other crafts in the air.
"What AST does is protect third parties and property from damage by activities in space -- they do not regulate the actual space flight and payloads except to require enough insurance of safety that third parties will not be injured," said John Logsdon, the former director of the Space Policy Institute at The George Washington University.
"The FAA is prohibited from regulating launch or reentry vehicle occupant safety until late in 2015, barring a death, serious injury, of or close call that can be attributed to a design feature or operating practice, under Commercial Space Launch Act," said FAA spokesperson Hank Price in a statement. "The FAA Modernization and Reform Act of 2012 extended this prohibition on occupant safety regulations to October 1, 2015."
Until the SpaceShipTwo accident, no activity that AST licensed or permitted had resulted in serious injury or a crew fatality, he said.
Licensing does include insurance requirements for the "maximum probable loss" of covered claims from third parties, which is calculated by the FAA after operators provide them with information about pre-, post-, and in-flight processes.
The investigation into the SpaceShipTwo accident is being handled by the National Transportation Safety Board. The roughly 400 NTSB employees split between its headquarters in Washington and four regional field offices investigate every civil aviation accident in the U.S., along with major accidents in other modes of transportation such as railways or even natural gas pipelines.
But the agency has no formal authority to regulate the transportation industry -- instead, it is charged with conducting independent investigations and making safety recommendations. The agency did its first investigation into a commercial rocket launch in the early 90s and assisted the investigation of the Challenger and Columbia disasters, but the crash of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo is the first time it is leading an investigation into a manned spacecraft accident.
"Up until last weekend it was something we knew was coming and had been working to ensure we were ready for -- and now it is upon us," said John DeLisi, the Director of NTSB's Office of Aviation Safety.
While this is a new arena for the agency, DeLisi is confident that their work providing support for the investigations into the previous manned space travel disasters and commercial rocket anomalies has prepared the agency to provide a thorough investigation into the SpaceShipTwo crash.
"Performing a reconstruction of the wreckage is really something we're very familiar with," he said, adding that the agency is already familiar with Virgin Galactic's program. As Virgin Galactic began to get going, NTSB got to know the company, he explained. "They've sent people to our training facility out in Ashburn, and we'd already made visits out to Mojave to understand where they were in their program."
There's also vast amounts of data about the accident, he said, including telemetry data about hundreds if not thousands of parameters and real-time video from the cockpit as well as video of the the vehicle breaking up in flight. "It has given us an insight that we never have had before in an aircraft accident," he said.
Tragic as the SpaceShipTwo accident was, DeLisi notes that such accidents are the exact reason that there is real world testing of experimental transportation methods. "The crew on board were experienced, and the test pilot who died knowingly was a pioneer in commercial space."
The first space tourists, too, might be considered pioneers. Under the current regulatory scheme, they would not be considered passengers, but "participants" who agree to the risk of space flight via informed consent. "Informed consent regulations require crew and spaceflight participants to be informed, in writing, of mission hazards and risks, vehicle safety record, and the overall safety record of all launch and reentry vehicles," said Price.
DeLisi does think that the manned commercial space industry will eventually face similar regulatory structures to that of the commercial airline industry. "We've come such a far way in a hundred years getting used to aviation travel and having it be so safe that it's by far the safest way to travel -- and we got there because of regulations that didn't exist when the Wright Brothers started, but grew over time in response to accidents," he said.
In fact, DeLisi sees the NTSB expanding more and more into investigating manned space travel accidents as technology progresses. "Perhaps in our lifetime we will travel from New York to LA in some sort of rocket powered aircraft that gets us there within an hour," he speculated.
"It's going to be a sea change, it's going to revolutionizes how we regulate -- but certainly at this point as far as this industry goes, those standards don't exist yet," he said.
But Logsdon thinks that the SpaceShipTwo accident may spur along the development of a more robust framework. "AST has been in dialogue with the private space flight industry and the industry has reacted saying we don't need regulation -- I think it's going to be very hard to make that argument after this accident," he said.