FAA commercial space budget hearing and a policy initiative

The space subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee is holding a hearing next Thursday, May 5, on the FY2012 budget request of the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). George Nield, the associate administrator of commercial space transportation at the FAA, is the only scheduled witness so far. The FY2012 budget proposal for FAA/AST (included in the overall FAA budget proposal) requests $26.6 million for the office in 2012, up considerably from the $15.2 million it got in FY2010 (the 2011 budget is uncertain because of long battle to finalize FY11 spending government-wide.) the increase is largely due to the planned creation of the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at the Kennedy Space Center, as well as a proposed $5-million Low Cost Access to Space Initiative prize announced by FAA/AST in February. In addition to FAA/AST's budget, there are moves afoot in industry to adjust existing law regarding commercial spaceflight that could come up at the hearing. The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 gives FAA/AST the authority to issue regulations "governing the design or operation of a launch vehicle to protect the health and safety of crew and space flight participants", but for the first eight years afte the law's enactment, those regulations are limited to circumstances that resulted in, or posed the "high risk" of causing, serious or fatal injury to crew or spaceflight participants. The idea was to give industry time to build up experience in commercial human spaceflight and identifying best practices before codifying those practices in regulation. That eight-year period expires on December 23, 2012, but the industry hasn't developed as quickly as advocates expected in the heady days of 2004, when SpaceShipOne was winning the Ansari X PRIZE and other ventures appeared to be following close behind. While no one expects FAA/AST to start issuing regulations willy-nilly next December, the industry would like to extend that current restriction to provide industry assurance it won't. "I'm not saying the FAA wants to do that, or would do that," Jim Muncy of Polispace said during a session of the Space Access '11 conference in Phoenix earlier this month, "but bureaucratic organizations tend to exercise their authority." Because the industry hasn't developed as quickly, some in the industry are looking to reset that eight-year "learning period" through legislation, and have met with people in Congress about that. "We are setting up as an eight-year period from the first flight of a spaceflight participant, so that it's literally eight years of learning," said Muncy. He said at Space Access '11 that the House Science Committee showed interest in holding hearings on this and then marking up legislation for this provision. This change, he added, might be rolled up into another proposal to include third-party indemnification for spaceflight participants, similar to existing indemnification for commercial satellite launches.

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