NASA and FAA Agree on Who Ensures Passenger Safety on Commercial Space Taxis

NASA and FAA Agree on Who Ensures Passenger Safety on Commercial Space Taxis

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced an “historic” agreement today laying out each agency’s roles and responsibilities for ensuring the safety of people who fly on commercial space vehicles, or “space taxis,”  to and from low Earth orbit (LEO).

The announcement by NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden and FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta comes two days before an important Senate hearing on commercial spaceflight risks and opportunities.  The hearing before the Space and Science subcommittee of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee is scheduled for Wednesday at 10:00 am ET. 

Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL), who flew on the space shuttle in 1986, chairs that subcommittee.  Nelson is not shy about his skepticism over any role that the FAA should have in ensuring the safety of people flying into space on behalf of NASA.   Under the Intergovernmental Agreement that governs the International Space Station (ISS) program, NASA is responsible not only for launching its own astronauts to the ISS, which is in LEO, but those of the other non-Russian partners in the ISS progrram.  The original plan was that NASA’s space shuttle would service the ISS throughout its lifetime.  President George W. Bush’s 2004 decision to terminate the space shuttle program once ISS construction was completed — a decision affirmed by President Obama — changed those plans dramatically, but the United States remains responsible for getting astronauts from the non-Russian partners to and from the ISS.

President Obama decided that commercial companies, not NASA, should take people to and from LEO — including the ISS — in the future.  NASA’s commercial crew program funds companies to develop systems to accomplish that goal.  The companies may launch government astronauts from NASA or other non-Russian ISS partners, or people completely unconnected to the government program. 

Which agency is in charge of regulating how those companies ensure passenger safety has been an open question.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation regulates and facilitates commercial space launches and reentries like those of the successful SpaceX test mission last month, which was part of NASA’s commercial cargo program.  No people were aboard that flight.

The FAA’s responsibility is to protect public safety.  For space missions, historically that has meant the safety of “third parties” — people living near launch or reentry sites who could be hurt because of a launch or reentry accident.   The FAA is responsible whether the launch is putting a satellite in orbit, taking cargo to the ISS, or launching a space tourist.  The open question has been who ensures the safety of passengers aboard commercial space vehicles as opposed to the uninvolved public on the ground.

Congress passed a law in 2004 that assigns the safety of commercial space passengers to the FAA.  It directs the FAA to have a light regulatory hand initially as the business develops.  Basically the companies are required to tell prospective passengers about the risks and the passengers sign a waiver acknowledging they were told.  Originally the FAA was precluded from imposing stricter regulations for eight years, but in February Congress extended it to 2015.    The idea is that burdensome regulations might stifle the nascent commercial human spaceflight industry and the government should wait to see how the business develops to better assess its risks before imposing stronger safety requirements.

Senator Nelson has made clear beginning with a March 18, 2010 hearing that he does not think the FAA should be in charge of ensuring the safety of NASA astronauts, however.  In a testy exchange with George Nield, FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Nelson said that he was the one who got the original law passed in the 1980s (when he was a member of the House of Representatives) that created Nield’s office  “and I never intended for the FAA to be getting into” the safety of NASA astronauts.  “I don’t want … extra layers of bureaucracy … just to get a crew up to the International Space Station,” Nelson said.  He has repeated that theme subsequently.   The hearing on Wednesday will be an opportunity for him to publicly express his views about the agreement signed today.

That agreement seems to comport with his views.   It says that companies have to get a license from the FAA for all commercial human spaceflight launches and reentries, but as for passenger safety, NASA is in charge for its own astronauts and those of other ISS partners.  During a media teleconference this morning with Bolden and Huerta, Bolden said that “if we’re paying for the service, NASA standards apply.”  Huerta said that from the FAA’s side, “our assurance of public safety is the same, whether it’s NASA or commercial.”

Passengers who are not part of a NASA-sponsored mission are subject only to the FAA’s rules.  Several companies are developing systems to take people on short suborbital trips, or into orbit to non-NASA space stations.   Bigelow Aerospace, for example, is planning its own space stations.  A passenger flying on a commercial space taxi to a Bigelow space station would not be covered by NASA’s safety standards.

The NASA-FAA Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) released today identifies former NASA astronaut Pam Melroy, who now works for Nield at the FAA, as the designated point of contact for the agreement.  She is scheduled to be one of the witnesses at Wednesday’s hearing.  NASA’s point of contact in the MOU is Phil McAlister, Director of Commercial Spaceflight Development for the agency. He works for Bill Gerstenmaier, NASA’s Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.   Gerstenmaier will testify on NASA’s behalf.  Another former astronaut, Michael Lopez-Alegria, is another witness.  He is now head of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.  Gerald Dillingham from the Government Accountability Office (GAO) and Michael Gold from Bigelow Aerospace also will testify.

During the media teleconference this morning, Bolden was asked when the agency would choose which companies to support in its next round of awards under the former Commercial Crew Development (CCDEV) program.  Now called the Commercial Crew Integrated Capabilities (CCiCAP) program, Bolden and a key House appropriator, Rep. Frank Wolf (R-VA), recently agreed that NASA would select no more than “2 1/2” companies to get CCiCAP awards.  Bolden said today that NASA will make a decision by mid-July and clarified that “2 1/2” means that two companies will get full funding and one company will get partial funding.

Wolf chairs the House Appropriations Commerce-Justice-Science (CJS) subcommittee, which funds NASA.  Bolden stressed today that he told Wolf that NASA needs as much money as possible to fund commercial crew development this year, and will need a significant increase for future years to attain the goal of having such services available by 2017.

Although the term “commercial crew” implies that companies are funding the development of these systems, they are dependent on NASA funding for part of the costs.  NASA requested $830 million for FY2013.   The House approved only $500 million when it passed the CJS bill in May.  The Senate Appropriations Committee approved only $525 million.  In the exchange of letters between Wolf and Bolden, Wolf said he would work towards getting a figure closer to the Senate number during conference negotiations, but that is still substantially less than what NASA says it needs.


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