NASA Says ‘No’ to Space Traffic Cop Role

by Lon Seidman | Jun 19, 2012 12:04am
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NASA

SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft attached to the space station’s robotic arm

NASA officials appear to realize that the space agency’s role may be changing with the arrival of privately operated spacecraft, but they insist they don’t plan to become a regulatory authority for space flight any time soon.

They even suggested Monday during a conference call with reporters that they will not play the role of orbital traffic cop as private spacecraft launches become more common in the years ahead.

Instead, NASA says any regulatory authority on commercial spacecraft will rest with the Federal Aviation Administration—at least for now. The FAA regulates air travel, apparently even if the aircraft is a rocket headed to orbit.

But the question left unanswered was what happens after that spacecraft leaves the atmosphere. Will any billionaire have the opportunity to launch a craft that might collide or otherwise damage spacecraft belonging to NASA or other nations?

“We’re not going to speculate on where things are going to go in a regulatory context in the future, ” said FAA Acting Administrator Michael Huerta on the June 18 call with reporters, “At this point we’re focused on how we appropriately permit commercial launches for the reasons of safety. ”

Boeing

Artist drawing of a Boeing CST crew capsule docking with the proposed Bigelow space station

Questions about safety and regulatory authority have come up as a result of last month’s successful launch of a privately owned SpaceX cargo ship to the station. The cottage space industry is now being taken seriously by the public and investors alike and, suddenly, the idea of private spaceflight is no longer a far-fetched, science-fiction concept. Rather, it is now a reality that could drive the next great expansion of human exploration and colonization.

And while some would expect this new frontier to be heavily regulated, it appears that for now it will largely mirror the “wild west” of the 19th century American frontier—once the spacecraft leaves the atmosphere that is.

The SpaceX mission carried with it a number of firsts, including the first mission in NASA’s human spaceflight program that wasn’t under the direct control of the space agency. That’s not to suggest that NASA had no control over the mission, which could have posed a significant risk to the International Space Station (ISS) if anything were to have gone wrong on approach or during docking. In fact, NASA officials said they could still pull the plug and abort the mission once it was within range of the station. But the spacecraft was controlled from SpaceX mission control in Hawthorne, Calif.

—Read more about SpaceX

This marks a major shift for NASA, which had always owned and operated hardware it designed for very specific mission parameters.

“This time we had to think like a customer of services,” said Alan Lindenmoyer, manager of NASA’s Commercial Crew and Cargo Program, at a May 18 press conference at the Kennedy Space Center. “That was a whole different mindset for us. ”

The SpaceX mission was delayed for months as NASA worked to verify that the company’s software code—which is used to navigate the spacecraft in close proximity to the station—met NASA’s safety standards.

Nevertheless, NASA officials insist the agency is not morphing into a spaceflight regulatory authority.

“NASA’s role is not regulatory in this environment, ” said Phil McAlister, NASA’s Director of Commercial Space Flight Development, also at the May 18 press conference, “If you look across the NASA portfolio, we purchase commercial services for a lot of different things. We just haven’t done it in human space flight. ”

NASA has used a single commercial launch provider for many of its robotic exploration missions, including the recently launched probes to the Moon, Mars, and Jupiter. Those launches are managed by the United Launch Alliance, which is a partnership between Lockheed Martin and Boeing. But the spacecraft those rockets launched into orbit are owned and operated by NASA.

Regulated Airspace

The FAA heavily regulates commercial space flights for the safety of the public on the ground. The agency is precluded from enforcing crew safety regulations until at least 2015, but any crew members on a commercial flight must sign informed consent waivers acknowledging the risk to their personal safety.

To date, the FAA has licensed the launch of 207 commercial space vehicles, including the most recent SpaceX launch.

Hoping to avoid an international incident, the FAA requires a launch and re-entry license for any U. S.-based company regardless of whether its mission originates or concludes on U. S. soil. The FAA also assigns safety inspectors to launches regardless of location. This is because the 1966 Outer Space Treaty holds nations responsible for spacecraft regardless of whether they were launched by a government entity or a commercial company.

But the current U. S. regulations end once the vehicle leaves the atmosphere. And NASA says it won’t regulate anything that doesn’t involve its hardware or personnel. The FAA doesn’t have the authority to do so either.

“If NASA doesn’t have a crew then it’s not a NASA mission, ” NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said during the June 18 conference call. “Any time we’re paying for the service then the NASA standards will apply. ”

The lack of regulatory control in orbit, however, could leave the U. S. government liable for damages caused by commercial spacecraft.

The Next Big Leap for Commercial Space

In addition to Musk’s SpaceX startup, several other billionaires are ramping up to orbit:

Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos is quietly working on developing spacecraft at his company, Blue Origin; Virgin’s Richard Branson is close to providing rides on his sub-ortibal company, Virgin Galactic; And even hotel entrepreneur Robert Bigelow has launched Bigelow Aerospace with plans to launch an inflatable space station to orbit with Musk’s help. Bigelow already has two pressurized prototype modules in orbit that were launched by the Russians in 2006 and 2007.

—Watch a tour of the SpaceX launch pad

Many other incumbent aerospace firms like Boeing, Sierra Nevada, ATK, and Orbital Sciences also are developing commercial vehicles primarily to compete for NASA ISS crew and cargo contracts. But they aren’t ruling out commercial flights, either.

SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the company will be ready for manned flight tests by 2015 should funding for commercial crew development stay at current or anticipated levels. But the first crew members to take flight in the SpaceX capsule will be company employees rather than NASA astronauts.

NASA’s McAlister estimated that it would take time, perhaps as many as two additional years beyond SpaceX’s ambitious plans, to certify the spacecraft for use by NASA astronauts.

“We think a reasonable estimate, and it’s just an estimate, is 2017, ” McAlister said.

Bolden said the agency’s vision is to have humans traveling to space on commercial missions without the involvement of the space agency. NASA wants to focus on deep space exploration now that the Space Shuttles are retired.

“Every flight from here on out may not be a NASA flight, ” Bolden said.


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