Space tourists fly at their own risk.
But now that several companies are signing up wealthy people for flights to space, some members of Congress say it may be time to revisit the FAA’s rules and more closely regulate the commercial space industry. In the next year or so, more than a dozen private citizens are scheduled to launch on commercial spacecraft, opening up a new destination for the wealthy and laying the foundation for an industry that analysts say could be worth $8 billion by 2030.
Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic and Jeff Bezos’s Blue Origin are working toward flying paying customers to the edge of space and back on suborbital flights, while Elon Musk’s SpaceX is gearing up to fly civilian astronauts to orbit in much more daring missions. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
How to regulate those flights is now getting more attention and creating tension between a growing commercial spaceflight industry, which says that overly burdensome rules will ruin its tremendous progress, and some members of Congress, who say that it is time to oversee space travel more in line with the way commercial aviation is regulated.
Although the FAA requires launch companies to protect people and property on the ground, the passengers are governed only by an “informed consent” standard, meaning they have to sign a waiver and be made aware of the risks, much like skydivers and bungee jumpers. According to the FAA’s rules, passengers must be made aware, for example, that “the United States government has not certified the launch vehicle and any reentry vehicle as safe for carrying flight crew or spaceflight participants.”
The industry says it is in a “learning period,” where it is experimenting with new kinds of rockets and spacecraft, and so relatively loose federal oversight and self-regulation are justified while the companies grow and develop new technologies. Regulations that would govern requirements for passengers, how pilots are trained, and the way spacecraft are designed and manufactured would harm an industry that is learning to grow and innovate, advocates say.
Companies such as SpaceX have shown real progress — for example, restoring human spaceflight from U.S. soil for the first time in nearly a decade last year — and a crackdown would hamper its ability to innovate, according to the industry.
But some say the time has come for stricter regulation.
With the congressionally mandated learning period in place until 2023, “that means despite commercial human spaceflight and space tourism soon expected to become emerging markets, the FAA’s hands will be tied,” Rep. Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.), the chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said at a hearing last week. “They won’t be able to regulate for the safety of the flying public. And you know I have serious concerns that some parts of the industry are talking about yet another extension of the ‘learning period.’ ”
DeFazio is also taking aim at the FAA’s dual mandate to both regulate and promote the space industry, which he said is a conflict of interest that could endanger the public. The FAA, he said in an interview, “should not be promoting commercial space. NASA can promote commercial space. The Commerce Department can promote commercial space. The FAA’s job is to regulate in the public interest.”
DeFazio, who spearheaded the effort to do away with the FAA promoting the commercial aviation industry after a Valujet crash in 1996 killed all 110 people on board, said at the hearing that scandals such as Boeing’s 737 Max problems show what happens when regulators get too close to industry.
“The concern is like when the FAA starts talking about Boeing as a customer, and we find undue influence over the inspectors,” he said. “We find managers overruling people who found critical problems with the Maxes, and subsequently people died.”
Leading Republicans on the House Science, Space and Technology Committee disagree. In a letter last week to Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, Reps. Frank D. Lucas (Okla.) and Brian Babin (Tex.), whose district is outside of Houston, wrote that “additional regulation at this point would stifle innovation, export technology, talent, and tax dollars overseas, and undermine American leadership in space.”
The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group, argues that space is not air travel, a mature industry that it points out has “well over a century of technological development and 95 years of federal safety regulation.” The FAA started regulating commercial aviation in the wake of World War I when a surplus of military airplanes was suddenly available for commercial use. The commercial space industry, advocates say, is different and only just beginning to show the kind of growth that many had hoped would come years earlier.
SpaceX, for example, flew its first human spaceflight mission for NASA last year, and since then has completed two more. Branson’s Virgin Galactic has flown people to space successfully three times, after a crash in 2014 that killed one of the pilots. And Bezos’s Blue Origin has sent 15 capsules into space, although none of them have carried people.
“Congress gave the commercial spaceflight industry an extended period to innovate new approaches to human spaceflight without being preemptively regulated,” Karina Drees, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said in a statement to The Post. The “learning period” is good for both industry and the FAA “by enabling industry to design the world’s leading space technologies without asking [the FAA] to write regulations absent relevant data.”
Regulating commercial spaceflight first got Congress’s attention in 2004, after a competition called the Ansari X Prize to be the first nongovernment entity to send a crew to space. The $10 million prize was won by SpaceShipOne, whose construction was financed by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen. One congressman at the time accused the FAA of having a “tombstone mentality — wait till someone dies, then regulate.” But the industry got the backing of Marion Blakey, then the FAA’s administrator, who argued that the business of space and the “astropreneurs,” as she called them, needed time and freedom to develop.
Since then, the commercial human spaceflight industry has not really taken off, and Congress granted extensions to the learning period. As a result, the industry says, it has developed new technologies and is on the cusp of taking people to space on a regular basis.
Given the ability to pursue new technologies, the industry has produced an array of vehicles — capsules that land on the ground or at sea; rockets that boost their payloads to orbit then fly back to Earth and land; rockets and a spaceplane that take off not from a launchpad but are dropped from carrier airplanes and then ignite their engines.
“The commercial space transportation industry in the United States is thriving at an unprecedented rate,” said Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. He said the number of licensed launches has grown 400 percent over the past five years — from an average of one licensed launch every five weeks to one every five days. He said that although the agency is focused on safety, it views itself “as a gateway, not a hurdle, a conduit for safe progress, not red tape that keeps progress sitting on the launchpad.”
Still, there has been tension. Musk complained on Twitter earlier this year that despite its efforts, the FAA was too burdensome when it came to regulating the test program SpaceX had developed for its Starship spacecraft. “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”
The FAA opened an investigation after SpaceX launched a prototype spacecraft without authorization. But since then, the company has been in compliance, Monteith said at the hearing. “We would not have cleared them to start flight operations again had I not been confident that they had modified their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw,” he said.
Safety, he said, was the FAA’s main priority, a sentiment the industry says it shares as well.
“Our company’s North Star is and always will be safety, a mind-set that we know is shared throughout the commercial space sector,” Mike Moses, the president of Virgin Galactic, testified at the House hearing last week.
The regulations currently in place “have led the way for this explosive growth without compromising safety or innovation,” he said. “Now is the time to build on that solid foundation to ensure continued success, particularly as we now look to taking humans to space.”
Wayne Hale, who was a senior executive at NASA when the space shuttle Columbia came apart in 2003, agrees, and said there should be different standards for purely commercial space missions and those funded by the government.
“NASA is using the taxpayers’ money and sending people as part of their job to go to space,” he said. “So, there’s a different kind of moral imperative there than if you want to go to Brazil and zip-line through the forest. It’s your own money and your own life and we ought to, within reason, let people do what they want to do.”