Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo flies to the edge of space on its latest suborbital test flight February 22. Development of voluntary industry safety standards for commercial spaceflight could be one topic the new Congress will look at. (credit: MarsScientific.com and Trumbull Studios)
by Jeff Foust
This year promises a number of major achievements in commercial spaceflight. That includes commercial crew test flights, like SpaceX’s Demo-1 uncrewed test flight now scheduled for no earlier than the very early morning hours Saturday from the Kennedy Space Center. In the suborbital spaceflight arena, both Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic expect to start flying people this year, with Virgin Galactic performing its latest SpaceShipTwo test flight, with three people on board, last Friday.
Many of those milestones, were first planned for years ago, though: commercial crew vehicles were previously scheduled to be flying in 2017, while both Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin had expected to be flying commercially by now. “This is the first time that I’ve ever been saying ‘this year,’” Blue Origin founder Jeff Bezos said in a recent interview about when people will fly on its New Shepard vehicle. “For a few years I’ve been saying ‘next year.’”
But flight test programs are not the only places in commercial spaceflight with unfinished business. The new year started with a new Congress and a clean slate in terms of legislation. However, the failure to win passage of some bills, like the Space Frontier Act that died in the final days of the previous Congress, means that both Congress and the commercial space industry will be starting over to try and address issues ranging from regulatory oversight to the future of the International Space Station.
In the House, a new year also brings a change in leadership, with the Democrats now in the majority. The House Science Committee’s space subcommittee, which traditionally has had oversight of commercial space policy, is now chaired by Rep. Kendra Horn (D-OK). (The top Democrat on the subcommittee in the previous Congress, Rep. Ami Bera of California, is now serving as vice-chair of the full committee.) While Horn was first elected to Congress last November, she is not new to space issues, having worked for several years for the Space Foundation, including in government affairs.
Horn, speaking at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington February 13, showed an interest in the issue and a willingness to dive into details about it. “I am incredibly encouraged and excited to be able to have the gavel with the space subcommittee,” she said.
One topic she said her committee plans to address is a long-running, but unresolved, issue for the commercial space industry. Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty requires countries to provide “authorization and continuing supervision” of space activities performed by its citizens. In the United States, that’s handled by licensing for launches and reentries, communications, and remote sensing. It remains unclear, though, what agency, or agencies, will have that Article VI responsibility for emerging space applications, from satellite servicing to commercial space stations to lunar landers.
“This year we’re going to continue to look at a means for authorizing and supervising new types of commercial space systems, including satellite servicing, that just don’t currently have a place that they currently fit under our regulatory environment,” Horn said.
She didn’t say if she had a specific approach in mind, including what agency should have that responsibility. Past proposals have suggesting giving that authority to the Department of Transportation, specifically the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, but the Trump Administration has instead proposed giving it to the Office of Space Commerce in the Department of Commerce, part of a “one-stop shopping” initiative that would cover many other regulatory issues. “This is a dialogue that we need to continue to have,” she said.
Another issue she raised is the development of safety standards for commercial human spaceflight. While the FAA is still restricted from enacting safety regulations involving those flying on such vehicles, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015 directed the FAA to work with industry on voluntary industry consensus standards that could provide the basis for future regulations when the “learning period” expires in 2023.
The work on such standards has been slow-going, though, and Horn suggested it’s something Congress should review. “I think that’s something we’re going to have to take a look at, and see how we begin to move that into the next phases,” she said. “How that process has worked, and the lessons we have learned, need to inform our thinking moving forward and find the right pathway in a regulatory environment that is balanced.”
The House, under Republican leadership last year, tried to address the Article VI issue, as well as reforming commercial remote sensing regulations, with the American Space Commerce Free Enterprise Act. While the full House passed the bill, the Senate opted instead to pursue a similar bill called the Space Frontier Act, which included the commercial remote sensing reform but not the Article VI provision. It also authorized an extension of the ISS from 2024 to 2030.
The Senate passed the bill by unanimous consent in mid-December, and went to the House where backers sought passage by suspension of the rules, which requires a two-thirds majority for expedited passage. The bill, though, ran into Democratic opposition, and fell short of that two-thirds threshold in the final days of the last Congress, overshadowed by the impasse that led to the five-week partial government shutdown.
The bill’s original sponsor, Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), says he’ll try again. “My intention is to move forward and pass it again, and then work with the House,” he said at a Space Transportation Association event last month. “We will work very closely with the incoming chairman in the House and, hopefully, as we have on prior bills, get agreement and move this forward.”
Cruz said that, on the issue of Article VI authority, he didn’t have a strong opinion about what agency—FAA or the Commerce Department—should be responsible. “I understood the arguments for going in one direction or the other,” he said. “I wasn’t overwhelmingly convinced by the arguments on either side.”
He did have a strong opinion, though, on a desire to extend the ISS. “US taxpayers have invested over $100 billion into the space station, and it is foolish not to get the maximum return from that investment,” he said. “There will come a time, to be sure, when there has to be a transition, but we shouldn’t force that prematurely.”
Cruz has the support of the new chairman of the Senate Commerce Committee, Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS). Wicker said at an organizational meeting of the committee last month that both a commercial space bill like the Space Frontier Act as well as a new NASA authorization act would be priorities of the committee. Cruz chairs the committee’s aviation and space subcommittee.
“Sen. Wicker mentioned the Space Frontier Act, or just a commercial space bill, as one of his priorities,” said James Mazol, policy director of the Senate Commerce Committee’s aviation and space subcommittee, during a panel discussion at the Commercial Space Transportation Conference. (He and other panelists emphasized they were speaking only for themselves and not for their committees.) “It’s something that, if we can get done early, we’d like to move quickly.”
He noted, though, the opposition last year’s version of the bill faced in the House. “We’re going to meet with our counterparts and see if it’s a matter of tweaks or if there are bigger issues that will take more time,” he said.
The opposition in the House last December was reportedly led by Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), who is now chairman of the House Transportation Committee. Part of his concern was a lack of coordination with the committee, which some in the space industry see as a sign it wants to take a bigger role in commercial spaceflight issues, particularly in matters related to national airspace integration.
Hunter Presti, a Republican staff member of the House Transportation Committee, said he couldn’t comment on DeFazio’s specific concerns. “It was pretty late in the process. Things got jammed up at the end of the last Congress,” he said of December’s consideration of the Space Frontier Act. “It underscores the importance of communication between the House and Senate, and between the committees.”
The lingering uncertainty about some of these policy issues—which, in the case of Article VI oversight, has lasted for years—would seem to cause problems for the commercial space industry. But, for now, companies and organizations have said a lack of resolution on those topics hasn’t deterred their plans.
“It has not impacted us yet,” said Joseph Vockley, president and executive director of the Center for the Advancement of Science in Space (CASIS) at its annual public meeting in Washington February 8. He was referring to uncertainty about whether federal funding of the ISS will end in the mid-2020s, as the Trump Administration proposed a year ago, or if authorization of the station will be extended through the end of the 2020s.
CASIS, which manages the portion of the ISS designated a US national lab—and, in recent months, has rebranded itself as simply the ISS National Lab—hasn’t noticed any reticence from potential users given that uncertainty, he said. “I think that, as we get clarity from the various government agencies who have the decision-making power on when the space station will be decommissioned as a national laboratory, we would look at our research portfolio and have to make decisions about our funding.”
The uncertainty about who is responsible for Article VI oversight for commercial lunar landers would seem to be an issue for companies developing them, even as they win contracts from NASA to fly the space agency’s research payloads on them as soon as late this year. Two of those companies, though, played down the issue at a Washington Space Business Roundtable luncheon February 21.
“For us, it is not a trivial point,” said Dan Hendrickson, vice president of business development at Astrobotic. “But as far as a top-ten list of concerns that keep me up at night, it’s not on that list.”
He praised interagency discussions on the topic, saying those involved in various US government agencies want companies like his to be successful. “For us at Astrobotic, it hasn’t been a barrier for getting investment or for getting customers.”
Ben Roberts, vice president of government affairs for Moon Express, agreed. During the Obama Administration, the company was able to get “mission approval” for its first lunar lander by adapting the payload review part of the FAA’s launch licensing process. While that process was “jury-rigged,” he admitted, it does show a path towards getting approval at least in the near term.
“We’re pretty confident that this administration, just like the last one, would do everything possible to make sure it’s not bureaucracy that gets in the way,” he said.
For those two companies, at least, there’s no immediate rush to fix the problem: Moon Express plans to launch its first lander in late 2020, with Astrobotic’s first lander now scheduled for the first quarter of 2021. That’s a good thing, since the record shows that commercial space, and commercial space policy, is subject to delays.