An ongoing lag in the start of commercial human spaceflight has the head of the ’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation and the industry advisors who guide him at odds over when to start setting safety regulations for space tourism, research missions and other commercial flights.
Testifying before the House Science space subcommittee Feb. 4, Associate Administrator George Nield disagreed with the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (Comstac) that the original eight-year “regulatory learning period” that expired in 2012 should be restarted once commercial human spaceflight begins, possibly as early as this year.
Congress has extended the learning-period moratorium on safety regulations until Oct. 1, 2015, but Comstac wants it to run another eight years beyond the first missions so the FAA commercial space office will be able to back up its regulations with real flight experience.
“The X-15 was making rocket-powered suborbital flights back in 1962,” Nield testified at a hearing on “necessary changes to the Commercial Space Launch Act” that set up his office in 1984. “The space shuttle — 135 flights over 30 years; now it’s true that none of those carried a spaceflight participant who actually bought a ticket, but as far as I’m concerned the design and operation of those vehicles really were independent of who was riding on board. We had lots of lessons learned, data, problems solved, challenges over time during that 50 years, and for us to just put that aside and say, ‘Let’s start over,’ without taking advantage of what we’ve learned, I think, is irresponsible.”
Industry representatives on Comstac, and some members of the Republican-led space subcommittee, believe that the less government regulation there is over the nascent commercial spaceflight industry, the better. And Nield — whose portfolio also includes promoting commercial spaceflight — stressed that he is “sensitive to concerns about the government being overreaching and holding things back; that is not what we want to do.”
To that end, he agreed with subcommittee-member suggestions that the law needs to be rewritten so commercial spaceflight operators can continue to test and improve their vehicles after they receive FAA launch licenses, instead of being required to freeze their designs once they move beyond less-rigorous launch permits.
Government third-party indemnification of commercial space operators against injury to the “uninvolved public” remains a legislative issue as commercial human spaceflight draws near. Alicia Cackley, an insurance expert at thewho has studied the subject in prior reports for the FAA, testified that France, Russia and China all offer higher third-party indemnification than the U.S, which is capped at $1.5 billion (adjusted for inflation to $2.7 billion now). But required “first-tier” insurance coverage, which is the responsibility of the launch service provider or its customer, typically is lower than in the other major space launch nations — $82 million on average.
A GAO survey of insurance brokers and companies in 2012 found a cash pool sufficient to support higher private insurance levels, Cackley testified, while stressing that the availability of the private insurance could drop suddenly after high-cost launch disaster. The issue is important in international launch-services competition because indemnification allows companies to charge less.