A last-minute congressional deal to keep the US government open through Nov. 17 also extends a reprieve for commercial spaceflight companies hoping to avoid federally imposed safety regulations.
(Bloomberg) — A last-minute congressional deal to keep the US government open through Nov. 17 also extends a reprieve for commercial spaceflight companies hoping to avoid federally imposed safety regulations.
The nearly 20-year moratorium preventing the US Federal Aviation Administration from regulating commercial human spaceflight for safety was set to come to an end on Oct. 1. However, Congress extended the ban three months in its stopgap measure to fund the federal government.
The change brings into stark focus the disjointed nature of spaceflight regulations. Currently, multiple government entities are responsible for regulating spaceflight, including the FAA. But for some forms of pioneering space travel, there’s no oversight whatsoever.
“To deal with this alphabet soup of regulatory agencies makes it challenging to innovate, adds costs and makes America as a whole less competitive,” Mike Gold, chief growth officer of startup Redwire Corp. and a former NASA associate administrator for space policy, said.
Read more: Titanic Sub Disaster Puts Lax Space Regulations in Spotlight
In recent years, multiple efforts have tried and failed to create a one-stop shop for space regulation: a government office that would be solely responsible for most — if not all — aspects of regulating space travel.
For now, three primary agencies regulate spaceflight.
Satellite operators must receive approval from the Federal Communications Commission, which carves out various frequencies used to communicate with spacecraft. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration must separately approve satellites that collect imagery or data of Earth.
Rocket companies must receive a launch license from the FAA, which helps to ensure that rockets and spacecraft entering and returning from space don’t harm uninvolved people or property. Rocket launch providers also must coordinate with the FCC to communicate with their rockets.
And there are still more agencies that touch the US space industry, such as the State Department and the Commerce Department, which oversee export control laws that limit access to national security-related technologies.
A bigger FAA role in human spaceflight would primarily affect Virgin Galactic Holdings Inc. and Blue Origin LLC, which send civilian customers to the edge of space, as well as some flights of Space Exploration Technologies Corp.’s orbital Crew Dragon.
“The commercial space transportation industry has evolved substantially, and the FAA believes both the industry and the agency are ready to develop and transition to a new safety framework,” the FAA said in a statement. Ahead of the transition, last month the agency updated its human space flight safety recommendations.
Representatives from Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin and SpaceX had no immediate comment.
It’s unclear how substantial the burden will be if the FAA begins regulating human spaceflight, though the agency has put together a rulemaking committee to evaluate potential regulations and associated costs.
“It should be a marginal increase in the regulatory burden, if you add up all of the regulations that could possibly govern space,” Caryn Schenewerk, a space industry consultant and law professor at Georgetown University who previously worked for SpaceX, said.
The Regulation Gap
Fragmented oversight creates a burden on companies, some analysts argue. “It’s confusing,” Jim Muncy, a space consultant and lobbyist with PoliSpace, said. “You have different people that you have to apply to for different aspects of the same thing.”
SpaceX, for example, must often coordinate with multiple agencies to conduct one launch of its satellites.
The guidance from agencies may differ, too. “One agency just takes a different position than the other and you can literally get conflicting directions,” said Gold, of Redwire.
Emerging industries on the other hand, such as satellites designed to service other satellites in orbit, commercial space habitats, or commercial lunar landers and rovers, lack any agency oversight.
Without clarity, the US risks running afoul of international law. America is a party to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty’s guidelines for how countries should explore space. One of those guidelines, known as Article VI, says that governments must authorize and continually supervise what non-state players do in space — meaning the US government could face international scrutiny over a single space company’s behavior in space.
“The nightmare scenario is there is some sort of accident on orbit involving an activity that would be regulated under Article VI,” Gold said, raising concerns over Congress hastily imposing onerous regulations.
A One-Stop Shop?
Under former US President Donald Trump, the executive branch formed a plan to make the Commerce Department a “one-stop shop” for regulating advanced space activities. However, the plan was never put into law ahead of the administration change.
Now new efforts are underway in both the US House of Representatives and Senate, as well as the White House’s National Space Council, to come up with legislation to give an office this authority.
The space industry hasn’t galvanized around a single solution, though the FAA’s Department of Transportation and the Commerce Department are often cited by industry analysts as the biggest options under consideration.
At this point, the best the industry can hope for is a single office overseeing novel space activities, but the current segmented framework seems fairly set, Schenewerk says.
“Maybe we would devise a different one if we were starting from a blank sheet of paper,” Schenewerk said. “It is hard to see how you get there with what we have today.”
(Updates with FAA comment in 11th paragraph.)
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