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SpaceShipOne, unveiled earlier this month, will not be flown commercially because of perceived high regulatory costs. (credit: J. Foust)

RLV regulation: licensing vs. certification

When Burt Rutan rolled out the SpaceShipOne suborbital spacecraft earlier this month (see “Rutan aims for space: A look at SpaceShipOne”, April 21, 2003), one of the biggest surprises had nothing to do with the vehicle’s unique design or flight profile. Instead, despite the fact that the vehicle seemed ideal to win the X Prize and usher in the era of suborbital space tourism, Rutan made it clear there were no plans to put the vehicle into commercial service. SpaceShipOne would fly under an “experimental research and development glider” license on a series of flights to determine what the operating costs of the vehicle would be.

According to documents provided by Scaled Composites at the rollout, SpaceShipOne will conduct test flights under an experimental license to avoid “the burden of regulatory costs.” In an Aviation Week article, Rutan suggested that the cost to obtain FAA certification for SpaceShipOne and the White Knight carrier aircraft could run between $100-300 million: on the order of ten times as much as the estimated development cost of the vehicles. “How can you amortize that?” Rutan told Aviation Week.

The potentially-high cost of regulation has been a major concern for developers of reusable spacecraft. If forced to certify their vehicles like commercial aircraft, vehicle developers fear that their industry will literally never get off the ground, weighed down by the expense of regulatory paperwork. However, as comments from both officials with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and industry executives show, the regulatory issues, while significant, may not be as big a hurdle as some fear.

The costs of certification

In the US, new aircraft designs must go through an intensive inspection and review process by the FAA before being approved, or certified, for commercial use. This can be a very expensive process: some estimate that the cost of certification can be up to an order of magnitude more than the development cost alone. Certification can also take a long time to complete. For example, earlier this year Eclipse Aviation, a startup developing a new low-cost business jet, was forced to switch engines to a new design by Pratt & Whitney Canada. That changed forced Eclipse to push back the expected date of FAA certification—when the company can start delivering aircraft to its customers—from the end of 2003 until the first quarter of 2006.

Certifying RLVs like aircraft could increase their cost by up to a factor of 100.

Developers of reusable launch vehicles, particularly suborbital vehicles that more closely resemble aircraft than conventional launch vehicles, have expressed concern about the costs of certification. “To go from an experimental vehicle to a certified vehicle is typically a ten times increase in price, on the rough order of magnitude,” said X Prize chairman Peter Diamandis during the Space Access ’03 conference last weekend in Scottsdale, Arizona. “And for the unknowns we have here it could be well more than ten times, it could be 20 or 30 times.”

Dan DeLong, chief engineer for XCOR Aerospace, is even more pessimistic, estimating that certification could cost up to 100 times as much as development. “It’s tough raising the money to build the vehicle,” he said, “but if you have to certify it before you’re allowed to make money with it, it will be 100 times harder and it just won’t happen.”

Licensing versus certification

However, certification only applies to the various types of aircraft, as well as manned balloons. Certification is not used for launch vehicles, which are instead licensed by the FAA’s Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST). “We don’t use the ‘C’ word [certification] at any time in our office,” said Michelle Murray of AST during a panel session on regulatory issues at Space Access. “Everything is licensing; certification is for airplanes.”

Today, AST routinely licenses commercial flights of expendable launch vehicles. It also has the authority, granted under the Commercial Space Act of 1998, to license the launch and reentry of RLVs. AST published the regulations for RLV licensing in 2000, although to date no RLV licenses have been issued.

“We don’t use the ‘C’ word at any time in our office,” said AST’s Murray. “Certification is for airplanes.”

While licensing is still a detailed process, it is widely considered less onerous than certification. However, what is to keep the FAA from classifying a suborbital RLV, like XCOR’s Xerus—a winged vehicle that takes off and lands on runways—as just a high-altitude aircraft that requires certification? To help make sure suborbital RLVs are considered as launch vehicles and not aircraft, the FAA has developed a pair of definitions for suborbital rockets and suborbital trajectories. Those definitions were announced for the first time at Space Access:

Suborbital rocket: a rocket-propelled vehicle intended for flight on a suborbital trajectory whose thrust is greater than its lift for the majority of the powered portion of its flight.
Suborbital trajectory: the intentional flight path of a launch vehicle, reentry vehicle, or any portion thereof, whose vacuum instantaneous impact point does not leave the surface of the Earth.

Those definitions, Murray said, are designed to be used internally to help the FAA classify vehicles. There are no plans to use them in formal rulemaking documents.

Those definitions were well-received by conference attendees, some of whom cheered and applauded immediately after the definitions were read. “We can live with that,” said XCOR CEO Jeff Greason. “One of the primary purposes of flying the EZ Rocket was to kickstart this process because we couldn’t figure out any other way to get an answer out of the FAA.”

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