SpaceX Seeks to Head Off New Human Spaceflight Safety Rules

Space Exploration Technologies Corp. plans to advocate to the US Congress on Wednesday for a multiyear extension of a ban on imposing safety regulations on commercial human spaceflight.

(Bloomberg) — Space Exploration Technologies Corp. plans to advocate to the US Congress on Wednesday for a multiyear extension of a ban on imposing safety regulations on commercial human spaceflight. 

An executive at Elon Musk’s rocket company who is scheduled to testify at a Senate subcommittee hearing plans to argue that the Federal Aviation Administration already is struggling to keep pace with a rapidly shifting rocket launch industry. 

“We want to keep moving as fast paced as we can,” William Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, said Monday in an interview with Bloomberg News. “And we don’t want to be held up where we don’t need to be held up.”

Even under its traditional regulatory mandate, the FAA needs more staffing to carry out its oversight duties, Gerstenmaier said. SpaceX alone has launched 73 missions so far in 2023, with its 74th scheduled as early as Tuesday evening — the most it has launched in a single year.

“They’ve been supportive to us, but we think they’re just getting buried, and we just see them getting more and more busy in the future,” he said. 

The FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2004, there’s been a moratorium on the FAA setting safety rules for spacecraft that take humans to and from space. People who fly to space on commercial vehicles do so under an “informed consent” framework, where they must acknowledge that the spacecraft they’ll be riding on has not been certified by the government. 

Those who support the ban say the commercial space industry is still in a “learning period” and premature regulations could stifle innovation.

The nearly 20-year moratorium was set to come to an end on Oct. 1. However, Congress extended the ban three months to Jan. 1 in a stopgap measure to fund the federal government. It’s unclear if another extension will occur. 

The subject will be discussed during a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on space and science on Wednesday. Representatives from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will join Gerstenmaier as witnesses. 

Speedup Ideas 

SpaceX also plans to make recommendations Wednesday for how to speed up the FAA’s work.

For example, SpaceX had to wait for the FAA to close its mishap investigation from the first Starship test launch before the company could reapply for a license to relaunch the vehicle. It’s better for those things to happen in parallel, Gerstenmaier said.

The company is a critic of the rules and regulations surrounding the licensing process for rocket launches and spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, what is known as Part 450 of FAA’s licensing procedure. Part 450 was created to streamline rocket licensing by creating performance-based requirements. 

SpaceX argues the FAA has struggled to implement those regulations effectively since companies have different methods for proving similar requirements.

“I think part of the 450 problem was we might have jumped to regulations too fast,” Gerstenmaier said. “They were well meaning and well intentioned, they were supposed to streamline things, but then the devil is in the details and it actually slowed us down.”

In July, the FAA announced plans to create a rulemaking committee to determine potential new safety standards that could be put in place when the moratorium ends. The rulemaking committee plans to gather recommendations on what those standards should be from members of the space industry. 

However, the company would prefer to extend the moratorium while potential regulations are debated at the FAA. The informed consent framework already gives the FAA the ability to step in if a major accident occurs with humans on board.

“They have a tremendous amount of authority in today’s world,” Gerstenmaier said.

(Updates with SpaceX launch tally in fourth paragraph.)

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