Senate Passes Another Extension for the FAA and the “Learning Period”

Senate Passes Another Extension for the FAA and the “Learning Period”

The Senate passed the Airport and Airway Extension Act of 2024 yesterday to keep the FAA authorized for another two months instead of expiring tomorrow. The bill also extends the “learning period” under which the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is prohibited from promulgating new commercial human spaceflight regulations until May 11. The legislation passed the House last week and now goes to the President for signature.

The FAA must be reauthorized every 5 years. It was due to expire on September 30, 2023 and the House passed a new FAA Authorization last July. Senate action stalled for several months, however, over disputes about pilot training requirements and other issues. The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee finally approved their version last month, but it has not passed the Senate. Once it does, the House and Senate will have to negotiate a final agreement.

In the meantime, Congress has been passing temporary extensions. The most recent expires tomorrow, March 8, so another is needed. This latest bill, which passed the House on February 29, extends the FAA’s authorization to May 10, 2024. The Senate’s action clears the bill for the President’s signature.

Six private astronauts return to West Texas on Blue Origin’s New Shepard-22 mission after a 10-minute suborbital flight that took them above the imaginary line that separates air and space for a few minutes, August 4, 2022. Credit: Blue Origin

The FAA includes the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), but its activities usually are authorized in separate commercial space legislation. One of the provisions prevents FAA/AST from creating new regulations for the commercial human spaceflight industry until more commercial human spaceflights have taken place to better understand what, if any, new regulations are required. Called a “learning period” or “moratorium,” it has been extended several times since 2004 and also was set to expire on September 30, 2023.

Four U.S. companies currently offer commercial human spaceflight experiences on either suborbital (Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic) or orbital (Axiom Space and Space X) missions. Axiom uses SpaceX’s Crew Dragon spacecraft. NASA also launches its crews to the International Space Station on SpaceX Crew Dragons, developed through a NASA-SpaceX Public-Private Partnership.

Crew of Axiom Space’s third private astronaut mission, Axiom-3, aboard the International Space Station, L-R: Marcus Wandt (Sweden), Michael López-Alegria (U.S./Spain), Alper Gezeravci (Türkiye), and Walter Villadei (Italy). Credit: Axiom Space. López-Alegria, a dual citizen of the United States and Spain, is a former NASA astronaut who now works for Axiom and was commander of the almost 22-day mission in earth orbit where they joined the regular 7-member ISS crew complement from international space agencies (NASA, Roscosmos, ESA and JAXA).

New commercial space legislation is still in the early stages of the legislative process. The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee approved a commercial space bill in November on a party-line vote and the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee held a hearing in December.

To ensure the learning period doesn’t lapse, Congress is including extensions in the FAA bill. This legislation will keep it in force until May 11, 2024.

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