Raising the profile of FAA's commercial space transportation work

Thursday morning the space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee took up a topic that typically gets little attention: commercial space transportation, and the regulation thereof, as it examined the fiscal year 2012 budget proposal for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). The office's proposed major budget increase ($26.6 million in 2012, a 75% increase over the $15.2 million it received in 2010) was the subject of considerable scrutiny by committee members, although a bigger, underlying problem may be a lack of familiarity with the office and its activities. Some members of the committee expressed skepticism about the need for an enhanced AST budget. The office's head, FAA associate administrator George Nield, cited a projected spike in commercial launch activity due to both commercial ISS cargo, and later crew, missions, as well as commercial suborbital spaceflight. Nield said he expects "several dozen" commercial launches that will require licenses or experimental permits from his office in 2012, primarily from suborbital ventures. That's far more than the single-digit level of commercial launch activity overseen by AST for each of the last several years. "You're asking for us to increase your budget for a 'what-if'," Rep. Sandy Adams (R-FL) said to Nield towards the end of the hearing. "I have grave concerns about that." Adams said that after another witness, Gerald Dillingham of the GAO, noted that his office could not justify the requested jump in spending. "We have argued that maybe incrementally, based on the industry, one could start making that move in that direction," he said, referring to increasing AST's budget, "rather than the 'big bang theory'." Adams was also far more combative than her colleagues on the committee, expressing frustration when she could not get what she thought was a simple answer on how long it took AST to provide a reentry license to SpaceX last year. (That was apparently because of some miscommunication between Adams and Nield, who had been trying to explain that the office issued the license about two weeks after receiving a complete application; Adams was citing one year, which may date back to the initial submission of the application that only much later was deemed substantially complete.) Another area of attention was on the eight-year restriction on AST's ability to issue safety regulations included in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 and expires in December 2012. There are efforts by industry to extend that deadline given the lack of flight experience built up by commercial operators during that time. In fact, a provision tucked away at the end of HR 658, an FAA reauthorization bill passed by the House last month, changes that provision from eight years after enactment of the 2004 legislation to eight years after "the first licensed launch of a space flight participant". There seemed to be little objection to that extension, although there was some discussion about why that restriction should be eight years long. Dillingham said it wasn't clear to the GAO "what the basis was for the eight years", while another witness, Henry Hertzfeld of George Washington University, suggested that in place of an "arbitrary" time limit, the extension should be based instead on indicators "of the maturity of the industry and the risks involved." One subcommittee member, Rep. David Wu (D-OR), seemed particularly concerned about the fact that commercial spaceflight is not held to the same rigorous safety standards as commercial aviation. "I am absolutely stunned about that characterization of the future of commercial human spaceflight," he said, warning later that an accident involving a crewed commercial vehicle "could potentially flatten the space program for a period of years." Nield responded that any form of transportation has risks and fatal accidents. "The nation needs to understand that that is part of the risk of exploring the unknown, of doing new things," he said. One topic that got very little discussion was a proposal in the 2012 budget proposal for AST for a $5-million low cost access to space prize. Subcommittee chairman Rep. Steven Palazzo (R-MS) suggested in his opening testimony that such efforts should be left to NASA. "It is my view that NASA is doing a more than sufficient job funding new technologies and capabilities through aggressive use of Space Act Agreements," he said. Given the constrained fiscal environment, he added, "I question the wisdom of implementing another form of federal largesse." A general, if unsurprising, theme from the hearing, though, was that many members just aren't familiar with the roles and responsibilities of AST. Part of that is no doubt because many of the subcommittee's members, including Chairman Palazzo, are freshmen who are perhaps getting their first exposure to the office, but even more experienced members expressed misunderstandings about the role of the office and its future plans during the course of the hearing. As the office seeks additional funding for what it anticipates to be a much higher level of commercial activity, industry advocates may need to step up their outreach to Congress on just why those additional resources are necessary and important. [Disclaimer: my employer does work for AST, but is not involved in licensing or permitting activities for the office, nor the development of Congressional testimony.]

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