Safety First House Authorizers Tell FAA Space Office

Safety First House Authorizers Tell FAA Space Office

Safety was the watchword at Tuesday’s hearing on the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation by a House Science, Space and Technology subcommittee. Public safety, crew safety, and passenger safety.  The government’s indemnification of commercial launch service providers and the dual role of the FAA as both regulator and facilitator of the commercial launch industry were other key issues.

Rep. Steve Palazzo (R-MS), chair of the subcommittee on space and aviation, and other members quizzed George Nield, director of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), and Will Trafton, chairman of AST’s advisory committee, COMSTAC, about how AST will ensure the safety of NASA astronauts on commercial rockets as well as ordinary people who fly to space on a commercial basis.

Subcommittee members complimented Nield on the perfect safety record of his office over the past three decades.   AST has licensed over 200 commercial launches with no loss of life or serious injury or property damage to the public.  It is requesting $16.7 million for FY2013, $429,000 over its FY2012 level according to Nield.  The increase would fund additional personnel to deal with an expected rise in license and permit applications.  Nield and Trafton both said they anticipated a significant increase with the emergence of the suborbital space tourism business as well as commercial space launches NASA is facilitating through the Commercial Orbital Transportation Services (COTS) program.  SpaceX and Orbital Sciences Corp. are both expected to begin launches of their commercial cargo services to the International Space Station through the COTS program this year.

In addition to the usual questions about why AST believes it needs a funding increase, the safety of launching people into space, or near-space as the suborbital companies plan, was a key issue at the hearing.  Subcommittee chairman Palazzo asked Nield how his office will handle orbital versus suborbital flights and its interaction with NASA on launching NASA astronauts on commercial vehicles.

Nield said “Our approach for overseeing the launches that we have coming up consists of looking at both the impact on public safety and the impact on crew members and space flight participants.”   Pursuant to the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments, “space flight participants” basically are members of the public — tourists —  who choose to go into space with one of the commercial providers of such services.  In the 2004 law, Congress prohibited the FAA from imposing strong regulations for space tourists — it can require only informed consent — for 8 years while the industry develops, after which the FAA can impose stricter regulations if needed.  With the advent of commercial suborbital or orbital spaceflights taking longer than expected, Congress extended that prohibition for another 3 years, until October 1, 2015, in the recently passed FAA reauthorization act (P.L. 112-381).   Nield said that his office is working closely with NASA and industry to “understand what would make sense” so it can be ready if the need for stricter regulations arises. NASA can impose its own safety requirements on companies that want to launch NASA astronauts, he said, emphasizing that his office is primarily focused on public safety.

Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-CA), reminded the witnesses that he wrote the language in the 2004 law so that there could be a learning period for the FAA to determine just what rules are necessary.  He stressed the need for the FAA to collect data during the additional 3 years to ensure that a “workable and safe” system is established.  “If it’s not safe, it’s not workable.  We know that,” he said.  

Rohrabacher went on to ask about the respective roles of the FAA and NASA in regulating commercial launch systems, and how Nield’s part of the FAA operates compared with the rest of the FAA. which regulates aviation.   Nield replied that his office works closely with NASA, and NASA “recognizes that they are not set up as a regulatory organization.”  As for the internal FAA roles, he said that both the aviation and space portions of the FAA are focused on safety, but the aviation portion has 100 years of experience, while his is a new industry.  HIs office, which both regulates and facilitates the commercial launch industry, also wants to encourage innovation.  “So that’s the balance that we want to try to achieve; safety’s number one, but let’s allow some innovation.”

The dual roles of Nield’s office — to both regulate and facilitate — are set out in the 1984 law that created the office, but often is questioned.  That was true at this hearing as well and Nield explained as he and his predecessors have said in the past that the two are not in conflict.  He said again that safety is paramount, but his office engages in many activities that assist the industry such as collecting and disseminating data, helping industry understand the regulations and submit applications for licenses and permits, and working with Congress and other federal agencies to identify obstacles.  In response to a related question from Rep. Jerry Costello (D-IL), Trafton said that the dual role was appropriate today, but once the industry becomes more mature, “we should probably take a hard look at whether or not AST should be promoting commercial space.”

Indemnification was another issue.   Under the 1988 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments, the government indemnifies companies for part of claims that could be made if a launch goes awry and hurts the general public or damages their property.  This is called “third party” indemnification because it protects only third parties, not companies or individuals directly involved in the launch.  Nield’s office determines what the maximum probable loss is from a launch and the launching entity must buy insurance to cover that loss.  The government, however, will cover losses between $500 million and $2 billion.

The authority to provide third party liability indemnification has been extended several times.  The current authority expires at the end of this year.  In response to questions from Rep. Donna Edwards (D-MD), Nield said that COMSTAC recommended that indemnification be renewed for as many as 10 years or even making it permanent, and lifting the $1.5 billion limit on what the government can cover.  However, Trafton, who chairs COMSTAC, said that it was asking for only a  one-year extension right now while it continues to study the issue.   He did stress, however, that the government-provided indemnification is needed to keep the U.S. launch industry globally competitive because all other countries indemnify their launch providers.

Rohrabacher defended indemnification, noting that the government provided indemnification to the nuclear power industry, which was critical for its development considering its high risk, and space launches are no different.    Subcommittee chairman Palazzo noted that he will hold a hearing on the indemnification issue in late May where the Government Accountability Office (GAO) will testify about an analysis it is currently conducting on this topic.

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