If there's a spaceflight in your future - whether it's a quick suborbital spin, a hypersonic rocket jaunt across the Pacific or a visit to a private-sector space station - chances are the Federal Aviation Administration is going to play a role in how that happens. The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is in charge of regulating as well as promoting commercial launches - and in that spirit, FAA Administrator Marion Blakey announced last week that it's "all systems go" for commercial space.
Blakey's comments to the Wirefly X Prize Cup Executive Summit in New Mexico last Thursday were part pep talk, part safety reminder. On one side, she encouraged space entrepreneurs to jump in and keep opening up the final frontier:
"Commercial space is all systems go at this point. And, might I add, liftoff has already occurred. This is an industry that has the people who got in on the ground floor right in this room. If you look around, you can see them. If you're here, you're a likely candidate to join them.
"Now from the government's perspective, our official policy is this … to embrace the private sector's daring spirit and clever ingenuity. And yes, you better believe that includes space tourism.
"We are in the business of encouraging and enabling the private sector. We develop regulations to make this high-risk business as safe as possible…And we make sure potential passengers are properly informed and are willing to accept the risks that remain. And then? Well, then we'll step aside … get out of your way … and let you do what you do best: innovate."
On the other side, she reiterated the FAA's commitment to safety as its top priority:
"This is an industry not without challenges. It carries liability in some uncharted waters. Carrying passengers is a huge responsibility. The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee that we convene regularly back in Washington … in fact, they're meeting next Wednesday … they discuss this issue at length. I think they're right to do so. It's always topic No. 1 on the agenda. Their goal is to develop a level of safety for the public and for passengers and to develop consensus about it.
"Truth be told, I wouldn't have it any other way. And believe me, Congress, the taxpayer and the passenger aren't in disagreement. Safety first. I've said this a number of times in a variety of settings, and it's always on point: If it's not safe, it's not going to fly. Period."
Blakey clearly expects there'll be an assortment of safe space vehicles out there. "There's more than one way to go 62 miles up," she told the crowd. "I'd be surprised if, in our lifetime, there weren't showrooms for space vehicles."
In a quick follow-up interview, Blakey and the agency's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, Patricia Grace Smith, discussed the road ahead for private-sector space travel:
Blakey: The FAA is fully behind the commercial space endeavor, with full enthusiasm as well as the weight of resources that we can bring to bear on this. ...
Talking about the issues of liability and risk, a lot of the way we are addressing those is with the approach to safety risk management, and safety management systems. So there's a lot of carryover [from commercial aviation]. There's really not a reason to reinvent, particularly when it comes to those types of processes and approaches that tend to drive the risk factors down to a very low level. It's all data-driven, and it's all about getting in front of these issues.
Me: With the current legislation, informed-consent arrangements govern how the industry is regulated right now. When you're talking about risk management, do you see those sorts of risk studies affecting how the informed-consent process is managed? Or is there some other procedure that might be added to address the insurability of flights and to make sure the industry is on a solid foundation?
Blakey: Right now, we need to exercise the authority that we've been given. In the rule that we're putting forward on this, we'll be able to be fairly clear about what the limitations are as well as the specific information that will be provided. But this is a very new industry, with vehicles with little air track record. You provide all the information, all the modeling, all the simulation data, etc., but at some point there is a risk that a passenger has to accept. And that is what the informed-consent approach is all about.
Smith: Our permit process as well as our licensing process has two very key parts to it: a safety review, and a hazard analysis. That gets right at the risks. What are the particular hazards that could result?
Me: For the uninvolved public?
Smith: For the uninvolved public. What's the mitigation to overcome those risks? The legislators were very smart in looking at going forward in this industry, in that our job is to protect the uninvolved public on the ground. The passengers go at their risk. The instrument for that is safety records from us, and from the licensee or permittee, in exchange for the informed-consent safety form. It's with a lot of review and analysis nevertheless, particularly looking at the specific hazards posed by the operational characteristics of the vehicle.
Me: One of the big questions that's coming up is this issue of point-to-point suborbital travel - the talk that a suborbital vehicle might launch from one location, go through space and come down in another location. Are there any additional implications for regulating that routine? It could be that someone would have to enter through air traffic control space ... it's not as if you can cordon off a portion of airspace and say that the flight is limited to that airspace.
Blakey: That's the case with the space shuttle right now. One of the things that I'm proudest of our commercial space office and our air traffic control organization for doing is pulling together to do a hazard analysis - what kind of effect the debris field will have, what kinds of liabilities does it pose. So we've done a lot of preparation in this area.
Smith: It's very conceivable that point-to-point would be a way that an operator would want to go. Remember, our authority allows us to oversee launch and re-entry. So if that vehicle launches from an FAA-licensed launch site ... it'll come down at a re-entry site, and that site would have to be licensed as well.
In the future, not necessarily so far out in the future, you'll have the case of a vehicle launching from Washington - an orbital vehicle at some point - and landing in China someplace. Those are the big international ticket kinds of issues we're going to have to work, through the community, by way of the treaties, in order to accommodate that. The same is true for a foreign vehicle launching on U.S. soil: We would have to license it if it's coming into the U.S.
Me: Is there a sense that the division between the commercial space transportation side of the FAA and the commercial aviation side is still well-delineated, so that you won't have to have air traffic control clearance from the other side of the FAA?
Smith: The point there is that we already have a working relationship with air traffic. We are another user in the National Airspace System. There may be other users - unmanned aerial vehicles. What the profile is for our entry and exit from the NAS, when we have more regular flights, we'll have to work those configurations so that the transit is safe.
Blakey: That's one of the great things about the fact that there's clear delineation. Space is different. But at the same time, as this becomes a more robust industry, with a lot of launches - absolutely, there's going to be a need for very good protocols and very tight working relationships. We do not intend to hold back the industry. After all, I don't think anyone sees commercial space as being limited to a few uninhabited areas. In the long run, it will have a bigger field to play in.
Me: I guess another frontier would be manned orbital commercial flight - for example, the scenario of someone going to a Bigelow space module on a SpaceX Falcon rocket with a Dragon capsule. Will you have to start from square one for that, or do you see suborbital as a proving ground?
Smith: I think suborbital is definitely a proving ground. The big question in the scenario you just mentioned is, who licenses the habitat?
Me: That may come up sooner than you think, if Bob Bigelow has his way.
Blakey: I'll tell you, it begins to feel like something that's only a sci-fi world.
Me: It seems like a sci-fi world, but it's becoming reality more quickly than you think.