When Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos blasts off on Tuesday with three other space tourists, a nascent industry will take a major step toward realizing its out-of-this-world dreams.
Can Washington catch up?
The first human space flight for the New Shepard will come on the heels of Virgin Galactic founder Richard Branson’s historic trip to the edge of space last week aboard the rocketship SpaceShipTwo.
Together, the milestones are predicted to boost consumer confidence and propel further development of new spacecraft to support a global transportation system via low-Earth orbit.
But many space policy experts and members of oversight committees in Congress are concerned that the government isn’t prepared for it — especially the office at the Federal Aviation Administration that is responsible for regulating the new industry, but is widely viewed as overworked and understaffed.
Whether ensuring public safety, managing growing space traffic or mitigating environmental hazards, there is no framework for regulating private space travel. And while many experts say the industry is still too new to settle on details, they contend federal agencies are already way behind.
“There are many open questions,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of Astralytical, an aerospace consulting firm. “There will come a time when the U.S. government, the FAA, will decide that it needs to regulate this sector in a way that is close to the airline industry. It is not going to be perfectly safe initially — no one expects it to be — but it needs to become safer as it becomes less experimental.
“All of these flights are still labeled as test flights,” she added. “These passengers at some point are going to expect a level of safety that is not currently achievable. When it becomes achievable, I don’t know.”
Keeping passengers alive is a main concern — both in the spacecraft as well as in commercial airplanes sharing some of the same airspace. In the months and years ahead, as spaceports and space flights carrying tourists or cargo become more frequent, they will require designated corridors for takeoff and landing.
The FAA has authority to regulate commercial spacecraft through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. But there is now a moratorium on regulating the industry until 2023 to encourage innovation.
“The FAA had rightly given these initial commercial space operations wide berth,” Rep. Peter DeFazio, a Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, said at a recent oversight hearing on the FAA’s role in space.
But he thinks the time is fast approaching to get serious about what those regulations should look like. “I have serious concerns that some parts of the industry are talking about yet another extension of the moratorium,” DeFazio said.
Yet some leading advocates for commercial space endeavors worry that if regulators move too quickly they could hamstring the industry as it improves its designs.
“The fear is if we are writing regulations based on old vehicles that weren’t very safe, then there’s a potential implication here that these vehicles will also not be safe because the regulations are also not safe,” said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association representing space companies. “We are still very much in data collection mode.”
“We want regulation,” she added in an interview. “We just want safe regulation. The vehicles are just now coming online. How does anyone in government know how to regulate those vehicles when they are brand new?”
Drees, who previously was CEO and general manager of Mojave Air & Space Port in California, argues the analogy to the early days of commercial airline travel, which was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board founded in 1938, is not quite accurate yet.
Spaceflight is still in its infancy, she said, pointing out that fewer than 10 commercial space flights in the past 17 years have carried people. That means there is ample time to get commercial space regulations right.
“I feel like as a comparison we are at a faster pace than commercial aviation because it took decades to iron out a lot of those regulations back then,” she said.
But as manned and unmanned space flights increase, there will be a need to coordinate them with the air traffic control system.
“There is work to be done,” said Dan Dumbacher, a former top NASA official and executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “We all know that whenever you launch on the central coast of Florida, the launch windows affect the commercial air traffic transportation up and down the eastern seaboard.
Accommodating the return of spacecraft to Earth, including reusable rockets, poses its own set of challenges.
“There is an interface there that’s coming and that we need to be ready for as launch rates start to increase,” Dunbacher added. “The various locations of those launches — even return, landing boosters on barges or on land — those also affect the air traffic management system, so we have to be able to sort through and figure out what those problems are and how we address those problems. What technologies are needed? What research is needed to address those issues?”
DeFazio, the aviation panel chair, says the need to ensure coordination with the flying public is also important if space tourism only remains the domain of a select group of wealthy individuals for the foreseeable future.
He wants to avoid a scenario in which airline passengers are informed, “I’m sorry your [airline] flight is going to be delayed, or you’re going to be an hour and a half late and miss your connection because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”
“That’s not right and I want to see that that does not happen,” he said.
The lawmaker says he wants the FAA to speed up a program called the “Space Data Integrator,” which is designed to minimize disruptions caused by commercial space activity.
The FAA’s space office, which is responsible for granting launch licenses for commercial space flights, is understaffed to deal with the growing regulatory challenges, according to Drees, head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.
“There’s so much talk about how we need more regulation, but our regulator is a team of 100 people,” she said. “They have not grown, they have not been able to keep up with industry, they do not have the expertise in-house to be able to regulate what the industry is doing, let alone keep up with the amount of launches they need to license.”
Drees said the FAA already has a huge space workload. “They are doing environmental reviews to process applications for spaceports and launch companies,” she said. “They’ve got a pretty heavy workload in addition to being under pressure to write regulations.”
The environmental implications of private space flight present one of the more complicated challenges, including the potential for contributing to climate change.
“Commercial space launch vehicles emit a stunning amount of carbon dioxide,” DeFazio said. “More carbon dioxide in a few minutes than an average car would in two centuries of driving.”
For now, the industry and its boosters are basking in the glow of a new phase that only a few years ago was the vision of a few billionaires.
The Bezos and Branson flights “will boost consumer confidence in the much-awaited promise the commercial spaceflight industry holds for providing access to space for all,” said Namira Salim, one of the founders of Virgin Galactic and who is set to travel on a future mission.
She thinks they will also drive more government action to help ensure the industry has a viable path forward.
“It’s turning out to be a healthy space race, one not compromising safety so that a commercially viable commercial tourism product can be delivered,” she said. “Successful spaceflights by the two companies will also help set operational and safety protocols for both the commercial operators and the regulators.”
But the challenge will be ironing out the numerous details, large and small, maintains Seward Forczyk, the space industry consultant.
“Do these passengers need to wear pressurized suits?” she asked. “Right now the spaceflight providers, at least Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, have decided no. Maybe that will change. There is no standardization when it comes to seat belt harnesses. Nothing is standardized in the industry.”
But that will soon need to change. “Right now it doesn’t necessarily need to be a standard set,” she added. “But as the industry matures, we are going to need to come to some sort of norms and regulations. If we want spaceflight to be like air flight, then we are going to have to develop the safety culture that matches.”