FAA Learning Period to Get Another Extension

FAA Learning Period to Get Another Extension

House and Senate committee leaders announced just after midnight that they have reached agreement on a new FAA reauthorization bill. The vast majority of the bill does not deal with space activities, but one provision would extend the so-called “learning period” for another few months. The language prevents the FAA from promulgating new commercial human spaceflight regulations and will expire on May 11 if this bill does not pass by then.

The chairs and ranking members of the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee and the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee issued a press release at 12:32 am ET this morning announcing agreement.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), chair, Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee.

Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Rep. Sam Graves (R-MO) and Rep. Rick Larsen (D-WA) said “The FAA Reauthorization Act of 2024 is the culmination of months of work between House and Senate committee leaders, and we look forward to moving this agreement through both chambers as expeditiously as possible.”

The FAA must be reauthorized every 5 years. September 30, 2023 was the expiration date. The House passed their version of a 5-year extension in July 2023, but Senate action was delayed by disagreement over issues including pilot training requirements.

The FAA has been operating under temporary extensions since then. The most recent in December 2023 authorizes it through May 10, 2024, two weeks from now.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) traditionally is under the jurisdiction of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, not the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee that oversees the rest of the FAA. House SS&T is working on commercial space legislation that would address the learning period, but it has not been voted on in the House and a corresponding Senate bill has not been introduced.

As a stop-gap, language extending the learning period is being incorporated into the FAA reauthorization bills. The December bill extends the learning period to May 11, one day after the FAA’s authorization expires.

Originally enacted in 2004 for eight years when commercial human spaceflight was expected to begin in that time frame, it has been repeatedly extended because it took much longer for the industry to materialize. Not until July 2021 did the first commercial human spaceflight take off with Blue Origin’s New Shepard-16. Since then Blue Origin, SpaceX, Axiom Space, and Virgin Galactic have made about a dozen orbital and suborbital commercial human spaceflights. Including SpaceX’s Crew Dragon launches for NASA, acquired through a Public-Private Partnership, the number would be more like two dozen.

Advocates of extending the learning period argue that more experience is needed before deciding if additional regulation is required. A decision on whether to extend the learning period for another eight years is pending.

Meanwhile, the FAA reauthorization bill has become a vehicle for extending it a few months at a time. Although it is called “must pass” legislation because of its importance, it hasn’t passed so far and whether it will get through by May 10 is far from clear. Another temporary extension for the FAA as a whole would not be surprising and whether new commercial space legislation can get done by the end of the year is another unknown.

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