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Small moves in commercial space

Armadillo Aerospace

This picture provides a view of the parachute ballute deployment on Armadillo Aerospace's STIG-A III rocket, launched from Spaceport America on Jan. 28.

Commercial spaceship companies are due to get some additional breathing space, thanks to legislation that was approved by the House on Friday and seems certain to become law.

The provision takes up just a few words in the reauthorization bill for the Federal Aviation Administration, but the impact of those words could be incredibly significant: Basically, they extend the current regulatory environment for reusable space vehicles for an additional three years, to October 2015. If the provision hadn't been worked out, things could have become much more difficult for space tourism companies.

Right now, the companies that are building passenger spaceships are required to demonstrate to the FAA that they're taking sufficient measures to protect the uninvolved public from harm. They're also required to disclose the risks of space trips to would-be passengers, and get their informed consent for flight. But beyond that, the FAA is restricted in its power to regulate crew or passenger safety.

The reason for that goes back to 2004, when Congress passed a law setting up an eight-year moratorium (some prefer the term "learning period") for passenger spaceflight regulation. The idea was that those eight years would give the space tourism industry a chance to get off the ground, and give regulators a chance to see how the industry's realities would mesh with future regulations. Should commercial spaceflight be regulated like air travel, for example, or more like deep-sea adventure diving?

The only problem is that no paying passengers have yet flown on commercial spacecraft, so it's not possible to do any sort of regulatory reality check. The three-year extension provides more time for companies such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace to get their rocket planes ready and build a track record. The current expectation is that passengers will start going into space on suborbital vehicles in the 2013-2014 time frame.

U.S. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said in a news release that the extension will "promote continued innovation, growth and job creation in this cutting-edge sector of our economy." McCarthy's district includes the Mojave Air and Space Port, where Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipTwo, XCOR's Lynx rocket plane and other spacecraft are being developed.

McCarthy's news release provided positive comments from executives at several space companies, including XCOR Aerospace and Virgin Galactic as well as Space Adventures and Sierra Nevada Corp. Back in 2004, I wrote that Jim Muncy, a Washington-based space consultant and founder of PoliSpace, greeted the news of the initial legislation's approval with a "mild expletive of wonderment." Today, Muncy was slightly more measured in his response, but just as positive about the extension's effect.

"The status quo is restricted regulation, it's not a ban on regulation," he told me. "We would like this period of learning and limited regulation to continue for at least a few more years, so that the industry gets flight experience — and oh, by the way, the FAA gets experience with spaceflight as well. We're trying to make this a learning and data-driven process, so that future regulations are based on actual data rather than speculation."

The action in Washington is just one of several small moves reported this week by commercial space companies. But sometimes, small moves are what progress is all about. At least that's what the alien told Jodie Foster in the movie "Contact."

Here are some of the latest small moves, plus a big move that's coming up:

SpaceX conducted a successful full-duration, full-thrust test firing of its SuperDraco rocket engine, which is destined to be used in the launch escape system for its Dragon crew capsule. The eight-engine thruster system would be used to power the Dragon out of harm's way in the event of a problem during ascent, and it's a critical piece of SpaceX's plan to ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space Station starting in 2017 or so. Discovery News' Ian O'Neill discussed the SuperDraco tests during Thursday's Weekly Space Hangout (you can tune in that part at about the 25:30 point in the video below):

The Weekly Space Hangout for Feb. 2 touched upon super-Earths, life on Venus (not!), images from the far side of the moon, nature vs. nurture in star formation and the test firing of SpaceX's SuperDraco engine.

SpaceX provided this video showing the SuperDraco test firings as well as an animation illustrating how the engines would be used in a launch escape system.

Armadillo Aerospace launched its third STIG-A test rocket from Spaceport America in New Mexico to an altitude of about 50 miles (82 kilometers) on Jan. 28. A test of a balloon-parachute recovery system ("ballute") was not fully successful, but the Armadillo team was nevertheless able to recover the vehicle and pass along some fantastic imagery from the flight. Armadillo says its next test launch is due to go beyond 62 miles (100 kilometers), the boundary of outer space. Eventually Armadillo plans to develop a craft capable of taking passengers on suborbital space rides.

Armadillo Aerospace's STIG-A Rocket Launches Successfully from Spaceport America.

Space Adventures says it's planning for the launch of a Russian spacecraft on a round-the-moon trip in February 2017, with two paying passengers and a cosmonaut commander on board. The Virginia-based company's chairman, Eric Anderson, says one would-be flier has already paid the $150 million fare, and the other open seat is "very close to being sold." Anderson said the venture is shaping up as a "fantastic validation of the marketplace for private spaceflight."

Space Adventures' Eric Anderson discusses the company's plans for a round-the-moon mission.

Sierra Nevada Corp. has delivered the primary structure of its first Dream Chaser flight test vehicle to a Colorado facility where it will be assembled and integrated with other flight systems. The vehicle is due to be used for captive-carry and free-flight tests later this year.

NASA says it will be offering $110,000 in awards this July for the Space Frontier Foundation's annual NewSpace Business Plan Competition, conducted at NASA Ames Research Center. Executives from space-oriented start-ups will present their business plans to a panel of experts and investors, and the plan that's judged the best will receive $100,000. There'll also be a $10,000 second prize.

XCOR Aerospace says it will award a suborbital spaceflight on its Lynx rocket plane to "one lucky paid registrant" at the Next-Generation Suborbital Researchers Conference, scheduled from Feb. 27 to 29 in Palo Alto, Calif. Registration has to be made by Feb. 10 in order to be eligible for the drawing. To read the official rules and register, check out the conference website. The XCOR Lynx flight is valued at $95,000. "We're going to pick a name out of a fishbowl shaped like an XCOR spacecraft," conference organizer Alan Stern told me. "It just shows how approachable spaceflight is going to be."

NASA is due to lay out its plan on Feb. 7 for the next phase in the development of space transportation systems capable of ferrying astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Proposals will be solicited from commercial teams, and this summer NASA will select which teams get hundreds of millions of dollars to work on those systems over the next couple of years. It's not yet clear exactly how much money will be available for the coming phase. Nevertheless, if the program goes forward as planned, it'll be a really big move toward once again launching NASA astronauts from U.S. soil on spacecraft made in the USA.

More about the commercial space race:

Previously on the Weekly Space Hangout:

To follow every step in the commercial space industry, keep a close watch on Clark Lindsey's Space Transport News, Doug Messier's Parabolic Arc and Jeff Foust's NewSpace Journal.

Alan Boyle is msnbc.com's science editor. Connect with the Cosmic Log community by "liking" the log's Facebook page, following @b0yle on Twitter and adding the Cosmic Log page to your Google+ presence. You can also check out "The Case for Pluto," my book about the controversial dwarf planet and the search for new worlds.