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Suborbital Launch Regulation

Tim Hughes, the staffer for the House Science Committee primarily responsible for last year's legislation clarifying the regulatory situation for suborbital passenger flight, gave an interesting talk at the conference about the history and philosophy behind the bill.

The intent of the legislation was clearly to help the industry grow, and they came up with what they hope was a good balance between safety and progress. Things they didn't consider included ITAR issues, which came up repeatedly in last week's hearings, and he said that this perhaps should have been considered, but that it might have held up the bill, because this is a much more contentious issue, particularly in terms of its implications for national security. In response to questions, he said that there are no current plans of which he's aware to renegotiate the Outer Space Treaty and Liability Conventions to mitigate some of the insurance issues.

George Nield of the FAA will be speaking next.

He's giving a short history of the AST office, pointing out that they have to maintain a balance between safety and avoiding stifling the industry, which is a delicate balancing act (Simberg note: and it's one that the FAA no longer has to do for aviation, as a result of changes made in the charter after the Valuejet crash a few years ago--they're now supposed to focus only on safety, which is why it might be a good idea to get this office back out of the FAA).

Now he's talking about the Vision for Space Exploration, and pointing out that part of the vision was to include commercial opportunities as well. He's describing a US Space Transportation Policy update early this year that mandates that the government procure commercial space transportation services whereever and whenever possible. Going over a list of significant events last year, including Burt's historic flights, and the provision of XCOR's launch license at this conference last year.

"We're at the dawn of a new era." "First to market groups will be small entrepreneurial companies." "Designs will feature creative application of existing technologies. Citing Futron study to indicate that there is indeed a market for suborbital flights, capable of generating over a billion dollars a year by 2021. Orbital flights will happen as well, but market will be smaller in near term.

What's different now? We have supportive national policy, including the words "public space travel" in the Space Transportation Policy for the first time in history, with responsibility falling on Secs of Commerce and Transportation to carry that out. We have realistic objectives this time: no technology breakthroughs required, suborbital trajectories with primary emphasis on passengers, using available technologies. We also are seeing non-federal funding become available from numerous wealthy individuals, as well as good support by state and local governments. Prizes are helping as well. The regulatory framework is in place with the Commercial Spacelaunch Amendments Act, which puts Congress and administration on the record as supporting human spaceflight.

FAA has a very ambitious homework assignment to write the regulations for passengers, experimental permits, and license requirements, which will result in a Notification of Proposed Rule Making (NPRM) in a year or two.

Talking about Branson, because he's the one we know the most about, not necessarily because FAA thinks that he's got the inside track. Branson's plans imply 2600 people launched into space each year, so that if Shuttle retires in 2010, and Branson flies in 2008, there will be ten times as many people flown into space privately by that time as have flown in space to date by governments. He sees no showstoppers, and FAA is committed to promote this activity in a way that continuously improves its safety.

Question: Do the new regs apply to orbital as well as suborbital? Yes and no. The experimental permit, for one, only applies to suborbital. Orbital regulation will continue to evolve as we learn more from suborbital experience. FAA is strongly supportive of this conference and think that it plays a major contribution. Announcing Craig Day, from AIAA to come up to announce a cooperative effort between government and industry to come up with guidelines for RLV safety regulations. Neild points out that there are still people who want to see reusable vehicles certified (didn't mention Rutan's name, but we all know who he means). He still doesn't think we understand enough about reusables to do this, and points out that a feathered tail for reentry or a propulsion system using laughing gas and rubber wouldn't have gotten certification (amusing dig at Burt).

Half hour break starting now, after which will be a talk from Michelle Murray of FAA about the launch licensing process.

[Update a couple minutes later]

Michael Mealing, who's sitting behind me, has pictures.

Michelle has started talking. I don't know if she'll have much worth blogging--it seems to be a description of the process for regulatory rulemaking.

One key point she's coming to now--they want public participation in the development of these rules. Feedback can be provided electronically or by paper. Everyone will be able to see everyone else's comments (unless someone wants to provide proprietary info, in which case a note will be made in the public docket that such an input exists but it not available). They may have public meetings for the purpose of fact finding where a particular issue is controversial. Meetings may be in meatspace or virtual, and will be announced in the Federal Register, at least thirty days prior, along with email notifications to affected parties if they know who they are (e.g., in this case, they might send an email to Henry Vanderbilt, or the RLV working group of the Commercial Space Transportation Committee (COMSTAC)). Public requests of a public meeting can also trigger one. They haven't yet come to a decision as to whether or not they plan to have a public meeting for this new rule-making process arising from last year's legislation. They probably will have one, but haven't determined when yet. May consider having one in conjunction with this conference or an RLV working group meeting.

Posted by Rand Simberg at April 29, 2005 10:06 AM
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Under current international law, what rights if any would private sector developers have if they made investments in the moon?

How about crafting a "homesteading" act for private sector development of land areas on the moon -- structures and mining developments?

Posted by Poly Psy at April 29, 2005 12:44 PM

Why is certification useful?

Or, I guess what I'm asking is "when someone says that they want to certify a vehicle, what is it that they actually want to _do_?"

It seems to me that suborbital flight would be just like any other sort of flight--file a flight plan and go do it. Orbital flight is quite a bit more complicated, because you don't want the orbital region filling up with debris (if you do that, you have to get the Toy Box to come and collect it, and who wants to pay Fee's cigarette bill?)

Posted by DensityDuck at April 29, 2005 01:24 PM

Actually, it's "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking." And a NPRM is followed by a public comment period which is followed by a comment review period and a E.O. 12866 review, before any final rules are published. If the proposed rule does not come out before 2007, you won't see a final, enforceable regulation added to the CFR before 2009.

I hate to sound overly negative, but take it from someone who understands what timetables for Administration priorities generally look like, this rulemaking schedule is not "ambitious." To be blunt, you're hearing from low-level bureaucrats at FAA who are moving at the stalling speed to keep you off their backs. Seems to me that they are betting on someone else calling the shots in the White House in 2009.

If the people pushing this initiative don't get the FAA moving by turning up the heat among the White House and Transportation's politicals (not the sub-SES folks you're now dealing with, but Bhatia and Blakey), we will not see the rule you want within the next 10 years. Period.

Posted by Just Some Guy at April 29, 2005 02:27 PM

> What's different now? We have supportive national policy, including the words "public space travel" in the Space Transportation Policy for the first time in history

Frankly, I'd be more impressed with the words "private space travel".

Posted by Poly Psy at April 29, 2005 03:16 PM

Certification gets you the fact that an "uninterested third party" has said your vehicle is safe. That makes passengers, insurance providers, launch sites, etc much happier about risking their money, lives and equipment on you. Without certification the individual transaction costs for proving to every potential interface you might have gets prohibitively expensive.

Posted by Michael Mealling at April 29, 2005 03:30 PM

Quoth Just Some Guy:

"And a NPRM is followed by a public comment period which is followed by a comment review period and a E.O. 12866 review, before any final rules are published. If the proposed rule does not come out before 2007, you won't see a final, enforceable regulation added to the CFR before 2009."

By law, AST has until 12/23/2005 to publish the NPRM, and until 6/23/2006 to publish the final rule. Dr. Nield was "cautiously optimistic" that they will make their deadline. I heard off line from an extremely knowledgeable and reliable source that the NPRM went off for OMB review in January, so I shouldn't be upset that our feedback from the February COMSTAC meeting won't show up in the NPRM.

Further quoth Just Some Guy:

"To be blunt, you're hearing from low-level bureaucrats at FAA who are moving at the stalling speed to keep you off their backs."

Excuse me, but you do not know what you are talking about. Dr. Geroge Nield, who gave the talk in question, is the Deputy Associate Adminstrator for Commercial Space Transportation. He is AST-2. His boss is Patti Grace Smith, the Associate Administrator, AST-1. Her boss is Marion Blakey, her boss is Norm Mineta, and there ain't nobody above Secretary Mineta but the President.

I have personally spoken with Associate Adminstrator Smith, Adminstrator Blakey, and Secretary Mineta on this subject, and I am here to tell you that every one of them enthusiastically supports this industry. I really don't think you can characterize the Administrator of the FAA or the Secretary of Transportation as "low-level bureaucrats at FAA."

You are correct that it would take the dedicated support of very senior FAA officials to make the Congressional deadline. Is Marion Blakey senior enough for you? We have her dedicated support.


Posted by Randall Clague at May 2, 2005 08:25 PM

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