New Space Transportation Policy Still Being Worked, Other Highlights of FAA Conference

New Space Transportation Policy Still Being Worked, Other Highlights of FAA Conference

The FAA’s annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference featured an array of government and private sector participants over the past two days.   In addition to Wayne Hale’s plea for industry to work together to develop voluntary industry standards to stave off government regulations, a number of other interesting points emerged.

In the interest of brevity, the following is a relatively concise set of bullet points of what we found to be new and especially interesting from a policy perspective.  It is not meant to be a comprehensive summary of the many fascinating and useful presentations.

  • John Olson of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) said only that “we continue to work” the new Space Transportation Policy.   There were rumors at the end of 2012 that release of an update of the 2005 policy was imminent. In response to a specific question about what is holding it up, Olson demurred, saying that significant progress had been made, but since it was “in work” he could not go into details.  He said it would not be a surprise since it is an implementation of the National Space Policy.
  • Olson not unexpectedly was a cheerleader for all that has been accomplished in commercial cargo and commercial crew over the past year.  In answer to a question about whether the commercial space transportation companies should pay heed to what happened to the commercial satellite imagery companies, however, he agreed there may be some lessons to be learned, though he sees the two businesses as different so there is not “a direct parallel.”
  • All four Members of Congress who spoke were generally positive about commercial space transportation.  Some more than others, of course, but there was no outright hostility.  The Members span a range of viewpoints from strong supporter, e.g. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), to those who admit their skepticism, like Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD).  Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS) said the industry must “win the hearts and minds of the American public” and convince them, and Congress, that commercial space “is U.S. leadership.”
  • Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-PA) also made a presentation.  He was the only appropriator who spoke at the conference (he is the top Democrat on the Commerce-Justice-Science appropriations subcommittee that funds NASA) and enthusiastically described visiting SpaceX facilities in California.  He acknowledged that Congress has not “eagerly” embraced commercial crew, but is now moving in that direction.   He praised those who helped “us cross this Rubicon,” and declared “we will never go back. .. We have set in motion something that is irreversible….”
  • Two Senate staffers, Ann Zulkosky (Democratic staff) and Jeff Bingham (Republican staff), said that the National Research Council study requested in the 2010 NASA Authorization Act is not intended to develop a definitive plan — an architecture — for future human spaceflight.  Instead, it is to articulate the “value proposition” of the human spaceflight program.   The NRC’s Committee on Human Spaceflight held its first meeting in December 2012 and its report is due in 2014.  The language in the law talks about setting priorities and many in the space community are anticipating a report similar to the Decadal Surveys the NRC prepares for the various space science disciplines.   Zulkosky and Bingham made clear that is not what they, at least, are looking for. 
  • Several Members and staffers mentioned that this year Congress is expected to work on
    • a new NASA authorization bill (though Zulkosky stressed that it is only the authorization of appropriations in the 2010 Act that expire at the end of FY2013; the policy provisions remain in force until and unless Congress changes the law), and
    • an update of the Commercial Space Launch Act (CSLA), which, inter alia, authorizes the FAA’s Office of Commercial SpaceTransportation.
  • Zulkosky listed other issues that may be considered:
    • the need for balance between government and the private sector
    • determining what can be accomplished with expected resources
    • further discussion of optimal contracting methods
    • considering the different policy needs for orbital versus suborbital activities (which may be the subject of a hearing)
    • the evolving role of the FAA in safety and who has on-orbit authority
    • what authorization is needed for commercial companies to cooperate with NASA and DOD on facilities
    • space debris, and
    • indemnification, which was extended only to December 31, 2013 in the law that passed in the waning moments of the 112th Congress.
  • Bingham stressed that the argument that pits the Space Launch System/Orion against commercial crew is an “artificial choice” driven by the Office of Management and Budget’s (OMB’s) refusal to provide NASA the money it requires. “We need both,” he said, and “NASA needs more than half of one percent of the federal budget.” [Bingham was careful to stress that he was not speaking for Republicans on the Senate Commerce Committee, but only from a historical perspective. He worked for now-retired Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and is not certain if he will remain with the committee staff. The committee has not organized yet so there are no decisions on committee or subcommittee membership other than that Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) will continue to chair the full committee and Sen. John Thune (R-SD) will be the new ranking minority member on the full committee.]
  • Bingham also said he was weary of the complaint that SLS is a “rocket to nowhere.”   It is a capability, he insists, and a “rocket to anywhere.”

There was lots more, including presentations by many of the commercial crew and/or cargo companies about their progress and future plans, a speech by the Secretary of Transportation, a video message from the FAA Administrator, and a keynote from NASA’s Bill Gerstenmaier, Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations.  He was billed as speaking on the NASA-FAA relationship, but said he was not going to talk about that and instead used the opportunity to stress the importance of the International Space Station (ISS) as a market for commercial space activities.

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