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NASA, FAA work out spaceship rules

SNC via NASA

Sierra Nevada Corp.'s Dream Chaser space plane prototype is lifted into the air by a helicopter for a captive-carry flight test in May. The Dream Chaser is one of several proposed spacecraft that could be cleared for liftoff by the FAA and NASA in the coming years.


NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration have worked out their division of labor for clearing a new generation of private-sector spaceships for liftoff — putting the aviation agency in charge of any crew-carrying spacecraft that launches and lands, but requiring the space agency's additional signoff on any missions it's paying for.

The arrangement was set out under the terms of a memo signed this month. It's in line with Congress' mandate that the FAA regulate spacecraft to protect public safety, while letting spaceship companies fly private passengers at their own risk.

"As it stands today, our regulatory authority is associated with the launch and re-entry itself," acting FAA Administrator Michael Huerta explained today during a media teleconference. "We don't have any charter or authority to do anything beyond that, at least until 2015."


That's when the "fly at your own risk" mandate runs out, and it's also just about the earliest time that any of the companies developing crew-carrying spaceships will be ready to fly passengers.

NASA has been paying four companies — Blue Origin, the Boeing Co., Sierra Nevada Corp. and SpaceX — more than $400 million to develop spaceships for flying U.S. astronauts. Today, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said NASA expected to announce which companies will be involved in the next phase of the commercial crew program by mid-July. Under the terms of a compromise worked out with congressional leaders, the program will give its full support to two spaceship teams, and roughly half that level of support to a third team.

The companies involved in the program have generally said they'd be ready to fly their craft as early as 2015, assuming that they receive adequate support from NASA. Bolden, however, is focusing on 2017 for the resumption of U.S.-based crew launches to the International Space Station.

The White House requested $830 million to support the program in the next fiscal year, but during its budget deliberations, Congress has been setting aside no more than $525 million. "We will ask for a significant increase in 2014 and the other years if we are to hold to the 2017 first-flight date for commercial crew to the International Space Station," Bolden told reporters.

The FAA-NASA arrangement for crew-carrying vehicles builds upon the existing arrangement for cargo vehicles, exemplified by last month's successful test of SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule. In that case, SpaceX received a license from the FAA for launch and re-entry, and clearance from NASA and its space station partners for operations at the orbital outpost.

Going forward, the FAA will have to license all U.S. spacecraft that carry passengers, orbital as well as suborbital. As part of the regulatory process, the FAA would focus on such issues as the placement of the launch site, airspace clearance, the availability of the appropriate safety equipment, emergency plans and indemnification, Huerta said. For non-NASA flights, would-be passengers would merely have to sign an informed-consent form acknowledging that they knew the risks of spaceflight. But if NASA is involved, the space agency would be responsible for crew safety and mission assurance.

"Anytime we're paying for the service from a provider, NASA standards will apply," Bolden explained. "You have to understand, if this works out the way that we envision, humans will be going to space strictly for commercial purposes, whether it's tourism, or going to an orbiting laboratory. ... Every flight from here on out, because it involves humans, may not be a NASA flight."

Theoretically, NASA would not have any formal say over the flight of a Boeing CST-100 space capsule that's launched on an Atlas 5, heading for a Bigelow Aerospace orbital module. But because NASA is expected to be the biggest customer by far for orbital spaceflight services, the space agency would probably play a key role in the development of any private-sector orbital spacecraft developed in the U.S., even if that craft ended up occasionally going someplace other than the International Space Station. Pragmatically speaking, it's likely that NASA would be to spaceflight standards what California is to auto emission standards, or Texas is to school textbook standards.

In any case, the formal lines of regulatory authority are now set for the coming age of commercial spaceflight. 

"This important agreement between the FAA and NASA will advance our shared goals in commercial space travel," Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in an FAA-NASA news release. "Working together, we will assure clear, consistent standards for the industry." 

Update for 9:40 p.m. ET: I asked NASA spokesman Joshua Buck how NASA and the FAA would work together if NASA-funded researchers wanted to take suborbital rather than orbital flights with their experiments. Here's the emailed response:

"NASA follows all due diligence through its own, established safety processes to assure that payloads are safe to fly before manifesting them on a commercial vehicle. We review all safety and licensing data (where appropriate) of the commercial provider before we agree they are a safe ride provider. It is the responsibility of the commercial provider to obtain the requisite license and permits from the FAA."

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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.