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SpaceShipOne X PRIZE flight
The slow development of a commercial suborbital industry after the 2004 prize-winning flights of SpaceShipOne has implications for a regulatory provision that expires this December. (credit: J. Foust)

Caution and optimism about the future of human spaceflight


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Last Saturday marked the half-year anniversary of the end of one era of human spaceflight. It was six months earlier—July 21, 2011—that the space shuttle Atlantis touched down at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, ending the 135th and final mission of the shuttle program. Today, the shuttles still shuffle around KSC, as Atlantis did last week when it was moved into the Vehicle Assembly Building, but those activities are not part of pre-launch preparations but instead work to prepare the orbiters for delivery to the museums that will be their final resting places.

The retirement of the shuttle last year was met with a mixture of sadness, angst, and concern, reflecting an uncertainty about when the US would restore its human spaceflight capability, and how. There is, of course, a two-pronged approach to doing just that, with NASA developing the Space Launch System (SLS) heavy-lift vehicle rocket that will be able to send the Orion Multi-Purpose Crew Vehicle (MPCV) to Earth orbit and beyond. Meanwhile, commercial ventures are developing both suborbital and orbital vehicles, the former primarily for tourism and research and the latter to meet NASA’s needs to access the International Space Station.

“The overarching value proposition that we totally came to a consensus on was that exploration was part of what has made America what it is, and that it is a transformational event for the country to be engaged in exploration” with societal benefits, Hale said.

Nonetheless, many still worry about how long it will take for that human spaceflight capability to return. Some people are skeptical that commercial ventures have the ability to carry out orbital crewed missions, a concern fueled by recent delays by Orbital Sciences and SpaceX in their demonstration missions to deliver cargo to the ISS. Advocates of commercial crew, in turn, worry about the government’s commitment to the program after Congress cut the requested budget for the program in fiscal year 2012 by more than half, from $850 million to $406 million. And others wonder if the SLS, which has gotten off to a slow start, will be able to survive multiple administrations and Congresses, particularly in the current austere fiscal environment.

However, the news is not all bad about human spaceflight. Last week about 70 government and industry officials met in Boulder, Colorado, for the Second Annual Human Spaceflight Technical Forum, organized by local company Special Aerospace Services (SAS). The meeting, closed to the media, was designed to allow for a “frank discussion” of topics related to human spaceflight, particularly commercial efforts, in the words of Wayne Hale, SAS’s director for human spaceflight programs and a former Space Shuttle program manager, who summarized the event in an interview after the meeting ended Friday afternoon.

“I think there was broad agreement in the value propositions,” he said. There are a number of different schools of thought about those value propositions, tailored to difference audiences, he said. “The overarching value proposition that we totally came to a consensus on was that exploration was part of what has made America what it is, and that it is a transformational event for the country to be engaged in exploration” with societal benefits.

The meeting also was an opportunity for proponents of commercial human spaceflight and more traditional government human spaceflight to move beyond the debates between each other that have dominated the policy discussions in the last couple of years. One of the meeting participants, Hale said, likened that debate to a “civil war”, but that this perception was abating. “There should be less sniping at each other because they’re all vital parts of the infrastructure and architecture for future human spaceflight,” he said.

A near-term regulatory issue

There will likely be plenty of debates to come, though, about SLS and commercial crew. The next round of those discussions will likely kick off in a couple weeks, when the Obama Administration releases its fiscal year 2013 budget proposal. Congress, industry, and spaceflight advocates will all closely examine and critique how the administration proposes to fund those and other programs, particularly in a time when NASA’s overall budget is likely to remain flat or even decline as part of broader deficit reduction efforts.

The FAA is opposed to an extension of the current restriction on safety regulations: “Even if there was something that was obviously foreseeable that we would want to do something about to protect a participant, we can’t,” AST’s Montgomery said in October.

Before Congress takes up that budget request, though, it may take action on another, more obscure issue associated with commercial spaceflight in particular. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004 included language that restricts the ability of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) from enacting regulations regarding the safety of crew or spaceflight participants on vehicles with commercial licenses or experimental permits. Currently, AST can only enact regulations in cases linked to the “serious or fatal injury” of crew or participants, or events that “posed a high risk” of such injuries during licensed or permitted flights.

However, that restriction expires in the act eight years after its enactment: December 23rd of this year. At the time the act was passed, just weeks after SpaceShipOne won the $10-million Ansari X PRIZE for commercial suborbital spaceflight, there was the belief that in that intervening eight years the industry would build up enough experience to allow AST to develop regulations based on demonstrated best practices. However, the industry has not developed as planned: the final prize-winning flight of SpaceShipOne in October 2004 remains the most recent crewed suborbital commercial flight, although Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace may begin suborbital test flights of their vehicles later this year.

As a result, some in the industry have argued that the existing restriction on safety regulations be extended to fulfill the legislation’s original intent of giving the industry time to build up experience. Although industry officials have a good relationship with AST and don’t expect them to push for regulations that could dampen the industry’s growth, they would like to have the temptation for regulation taken away just the same. “Bureaucratic organizations tend to exercise their authority,” Jim Muncy of PoliSpace said in a discussion about the provision at the Space Access ’11 conference last spring in Phoenix.

FAA officials, however, disagree. “We are not in favor of an extension of the moratorium,” said FAA/AST senior attorney Laura Montgomery during a session of the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight in Las Cruces, New Mexico, in October. Letting the moratorium expire would give the office the flexibility to act if the need arose, something that she said is missing now. “Right now, our hands are tied. Even if there was something that was obviously foreseeable that we would want to do something about to protect a participant, we can’t.”

The issue may come to the head as part of work on a reauthorization legislation for the FAA. The House version of the bill, HR 658, includes a provision at the very end of the document amending the CSLAA. It would replace the eight-year moratorium in the legislation to eight years from the “first licensed launch of a space flight participant”. That would, in effect, reset the clock and then some, given it’s unlikely that any company will perform a licensed launch of a spaceflight participant before the end of the year.

“We have a great deal of opportunity, we have a great deal of capacity, but the road is not free of obstacles and it’s going to take continued work to ensure that we regain American human spaceflight capability and put it to good use for the nation,” Hale said.

The Senate version of the bill does not include any language modifying the CSLAA, however. The two bills have been deadlocked for months because of disputes about other provisions in the bill regarding organized labor. Late Friday, though, National Journal reported that House and Senate negotiators had reached a compromise on those provisions, clearing the way for work on a final version of the bill that can pass both houses. That work may take a few weeks, but is “manageable”, according to the National Journal report.

The topic of an extension of the CSLAA came up at the SAS conference last week, prior to the news about the FAA reauthorization bill, but Hale said there was pessimism that the law would be modified. Most of the people at the meeting “were not actively lobbying for an extension” of that restriction, he said.

The discussion at the meeting instead revolved around what the FAA would do when its current restriction expires on December 23. Hale said there was an understanding that the FAA would not immediately promulgate a series of new safety regulations, citing the time it takes to develop and make open for public comment any new rulemaking. “No one at the FAA is working in a back office to deliver a bunch of new proposed regulations on December 24th,” he said.

That message of pragmatism—a mix of optimism about the future but caution about the path ahead—was a general theme of both last week’s meeting and the future of US human spaceflight in general, Hale suggested. “It’s a cautious optimism,” he said. “We have a great deal of opportunity, we have a great deal of capacity, but the road is not free of obstacles and it’s going to take continued work to ensure that we regain American human spaceflight capability and put it to good use for the nation.”


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