Senate Appropriators Evaluating Need to Change Law on Space Passenger Safety

Senate Appropriators Evaluating Need to Change Law on Space Passenger Safety

The Senate Appropriations Committee said today it is evaluating the need to change existing law that prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations on the safety of commercial human spaceflight passengers until 2023.  It also wants the FAA to assess how its launch and reentry licensing process could be used to address risks from reentering space debris.

The committee released all 12 FY2021 appropriations bills today including Transportation-HUD which funds the Department of Transportation, of which FAA is part. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business.

FAA has three different line items for commercial space activities.  FAA/AST is funded primarily in the Operations account, although it also has a Center of Excellence for safety that is funded in Research, Engineering, and Development (RE&D).  Separately, FAA’s Air Traffic Organization is developing a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to more efficiently integrate space launches and reentries into the National Airspace System so airplanes do not have to be diverted from their paths so often, or for as long, during space operations.  That is funded in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) part of the budget as Commercial Space Integration.

For FY2021, the three requests totaled $44.4 million and that is exactly what the appropriators approved: $27.555 million for FAA/AST operations, $5.8 million for the safety center, and $11 million for Commercial Space Integration.

In its explanatory statement, the committee went much further than simply recommending funding, however.

After congratulating the FAA on finalizing its Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Regulations, the committee delved into how the FAA regulates the safety of passengers on commercial spacecraft.  Existing law stretching back to 2004 prohibits the FAA from promulgating new regulations on that front until a certain period of time has elapsed — called a “moratorium” or a “learning period” — to ensure regulations do not stifle the nascent business.  Right now the prohibition ends in 2023 pursuant to the 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA).

CSLCA encouraged the commercial spaceflight industry to develop voluntary industry standards, but as the committee noted, little progress has been made.

The Committee notes that the formation of industry consensus standards on this matter are significantly delayed, and with multiple, regular commercial human spaceflight missions imminent, the Committee will continue to evaluate the need to alter current law to allow the FAA to promulgate regulations before the end of the current regulatory moratorium, which expires in 2023.

Next, the committee turned to the issue of the growing number of satellites in low Earth orbit especially the launch of “megaconstellations” of thousands of small communications satellites.  The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) must approve these systems because they require frequency assignments and has been active in developing regulations on how companies dispose of these satellites at their end of life so they do not pose a debris hazards. Typically the satellites are deorbited so they reenter the atmosphere and burn up.

The committee appears concerned that also could be a hazard.

Further, the Committee observes that the exponential rise of non-geostationary satellites, particularly those in low earth orbit, poses an increased risk due to reentering debris. Therefore, the Committee directs the FAA to provide a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations within 270 days of enactment of this act assessing how the FAA launch and reentry licensing process can be leveraged to address this risk.


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