SpaceX Warns Government Regulations Slowing Starship, Could Let China Get Ahead

SpaceX Warns Government Regulations Slowing Starship, Could Let China Get Ahead

SpaceX told a Senate committee today that government regulations are slowing the development of Starship and the commercial human spaceflight industry is at a “breaking point” in terms of maintaining U.S. leadership in space. The message from SpaceX and other industry leaders was that ensuring safety is important, but so is innovation and the regulatory landscape has to change for the U.S. to stay ahead of China.

Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) chairs a Senate Commerce space subcommittee hearing on commercial human spaceflight regulation, October 18, 2023. Screengrab.

The Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation space subcommittee heard from SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, and other industry experts that the commercial human spaceflight industry is at an “inflection point.” The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is understaffed and underfunded and although it recently streamlined the regulatory process, more work needs to be done for U.S. industry to remain competitive.

FAA itself was not represented at the hearing. FAA’s AST regulates, facilitates, and promotes commercial space launches and reentries.

A major theme of the hearing was the imminent expiration of a prohibition on the FAA promulating new human spaceflight regulations. Under current law, the FAA does not certify launch vehicles as safe for carrying humans. Some regulations apply to personnel who operate the vehicle, but passengers need only give their “informed consent” before climbing aboard.

Originally established by Congress in 2004, an 8-year “moratorium” on additional regulations was intended to avoid stifling a nascent business until enough experience was gained to determine whether more was needed — a “learning period.” The moratorium has been repeatedly extended because it’s taken much longer than expected for flights to begin. The 2015 Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (CSLCA) pushed the deadline to September 30, 2023, 8 years beyond its expiration date at the time. The just-passed Continuing Resolution extended it for three more months to January 1, 2024.  Congress now needs to decide whether a longer extension is needed.

The witnesses at today’s hearing all want it extended again and there was no disagreement from the committee.

Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX, at a Senate Commerce subcommittee hearing on commercial human spaceflight regulation, October 18, 2023. Screengrab.

Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX Vice President for Build and Reliability, spoke in much broader terms, however. SpaceX is waiting right now for the FAA to issue a license for the next test flight of Starship, the company’s huge rocket that among other things will be used by NASA as the Human Landing System (HLS) for its first two Artemis missions to return astronauts to the Moon.

Starship’s first flight on April 20 failed about 4 minutes after launch, exploding over the Gulf of Mexico after an abort command was sent. The FAA is responsible for public safety and oversees an interagency regulatory process that includes environmental reviews. The FAA closed its investigation of the “mishap” on September 8, but cannot issue a license until SpaceX demonstrates it has complied with a long list of corrective actions and other agencies, such as the Fish and Wildlife Service, agree.  FWS is involved because the liftoff destroyed the concrete pad under the rocket sending concrete chunks and other debris into protected wildlife refuges.  Several environmental groups are suing the FAA for not adequately executing their environmental review responsibilities.

SpaceX’s first Starship launch on April 20, 2023 pulverized the pad under the huge rocket, sending chunks of concrete and debris into protected wildlife refuges and over the nearby town of Port Isabel. Photo credit: SpaceX

On top of that, SpaceX is conducting a record number of launches of its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. They are aiming for 100 launches this year and 144 next year, Gerstenmaier said, and AST can’t keep up.

We are at an inflection point with incredible innovation in commercial space launch. The criticality is especially true in the face of strategic competition from state actors like China.

SpaceX is under contract with NASA to use Starship to land American astronauts on the moon before China does. We’re undertaking a campaign that requires many early test flights to rapidly mature and prove out the critical systems needed to safely land NASA astronauts on the lunar surface. We understand the vital importance of this national mission and the absolute need to protect the public during every phase of development.

Starship has been ready for its next flight test for more than a month but we are waiting for an FAA license….

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation known as AST must recognize where the industry is, where the industry is going and its role in regulating this emerging industry, promote, encourage, enable and protect public safety. This was Congress’s direction in the Commercial Space Act when it was written. To do this, the pace of American regulation must match the pace of American innovation. We are falling behind. …

… AST’s role is critical to enabling safe space transportation, but we’re at a breaking point. AST has neither the resources nor the flexibility to implement its regulatory obligations. Licensing, including environmental approval, often takes longer than rocket development. This should never happen and it’s only getting worse. Our Starship, Falcon and Dragon programs are encountering regulatory headwinds and unnecessary bureaucracy that have nothing to do with public safety.  — Bill Gerstenmaier, SpaceX

Gerstenmaier, who spent more than 30 years at NASA including over a decade as head of its human spaceflight program, stopped short of saying that regulatory delays were the only hurdles to getting Starship ready for Artemis missions.

Asked by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Ranking Member of the full committee, when it would be ready, Gerstenmaier replied “it’s hard to say. We need to fly at the fastest pace. To be fair we also have huge technical challenges,” but they need to fly it to test it “and we cannot be held up by regulation.”

Gerstenmaier called for Congress to double AST’s resources, expand expedited hiring authority for technical experts, and provide guidance that AST’s role is only to protect public safety not ensure success of rocket launches. He also wants AST’s Part 450 regulations to be more flexible for “projects of national interest such as Artemis” and ensure other agencies involved in the approval process, like environmental agencies, “complete their work consistent with national program schedules.”

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic, at a Senate Commerce space subcommittee hearing on commercial human spaceflight regulation, October 18, 2023. Screengrab.

Caryn Schenewerk from CS Consulting, Brig. Gen. Wayne Monteith (Ret.) from National Aerospace Solutions, Sirisha Bandla from Virgin Galactic, and Phil Joyce from Blue Origin all emphasized the need to ensure that regulation does not stifle innovation. Schenewerk previously worked for SpaceX and Relativity Space and chairs the regulatory subcommittee of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC). Monteith commanded the Air Force’s 45th Space Wing before joining the FAA and heading AST during the Trump Administration. Bandla is Virgin Galactic’s Vice President of Government Affairs and Research and flew to space on the company’s SpaceShipTwo in 2021. Joyce is Blue Origin’s Senior Vice President of the New Shepard Business Unit.

All agreed that the FAA should not create new commercial human spaceflight regulations now and Bandla recommended another 8-year extension, as in the 2015 law, so data can be collected to inform whatever regulations may be required. “We should not be moving the goalposts just to move the goalposts,” but must develop an appropriate blueprint and give industry time to transition.

Rep. Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) has introduced a bill in the House that would do that (H.R. 5617).

Monteith had a different idea. Instead of  just extending the moratorium, he recommended Congress take a two-phase approach: the FAA would not be allowed to set new regulations sooner than a certain date, such as 5 years, but then a minimum of perhaps 18 months would have to elapse before any new regulation becomes effective. That would guard against a “rush to regulate” in the event of a catastrophe and allow Congress the option of delaying the effective date if it decides the new regulation is “early to need.”

At a completely unrelated meeting of the National Academies’ Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board later in the day, Minh Nguyen, Executive Director of AST’s Office of Strategic Management, spoke about the importance of “having the right rules in the right place at the right time” and to “strike a balance between safety and regulatory burden.” The Part 450 regulations were the result of a streamlining effort during the Trump Administration and shift FAA’s oversight from “mission-by-mission approvals to approvals of processes and methods,” but Nguyen conceded there have been “challenges along the way” and “we are not done yet.”


This article has been updated.


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