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​FAA: Too early to write commercial space flight regulations

The prospect of commercial space flight could become a reality within the next two decades, but US Federal Aviation Administration officials are saying it’s still too early to write regulations to protect crew and passengers aboard space flights.

Congress has directed the FAA to put off creating those regulations now, instead encouraging the agency to develop standards with industry, FAA commercial space transportation associate administrator George Nield told a commercial space industry audience in Washington on Monday. “If we start too early and say this is how you have to do everything, you’re going to get it wrong,” Nield says.

Once regulations are formulated, they still won’t be as stringent as commercial aviation rules. Such strict requirements would prevent commercial space operations from getting off the ground, according to Nield. Both the FAA and industry also don’t want to certify commercial space vehicles the same way the agency certifies aircraft. While the “un-involved public” on the ground will be protected from the risks of commercial space flight, Congress has told the FAA to inform passengers of the potentially fatal risks of a rocket trip.

Blue Origin intends to launch its first human passenger flight aboard its New Shepard space vehicle by the end of 2017 and its first paid flight in 2018, but its director of business development says it’s too early to write rules.

“From a regulatory framework, we definitely don’t want new certification prematurely,” Brett Alexander says. “We have not yet even begun to have human flights.”

Although the agency is not diving into regulations yet, the FAA is working through how to integrate commercial space operations into the national airspace system to help them operate safely. That would improve current operations, which involves temporary flight restrictions to segregate aircraft from rockets throughout the entire launch window, which can often last hours, Nield says.

But the greatest challenge for the FAA at the moment is grasping how it will regulate commercial space operations that don’t yet exist. The agency is well acquainted with commercial launches such as telecommunications satellites, but several companies are now proposing operations of commercial space stations, satellite service missions, moon landings and asteroid mining. The FAA is willing to take on that role if the White House and Congress agree, but current policy does not spell out which agency regulates nontraditional missions, Nield says.

“They’re coming to Washington and knocking on doors with questions like, ‘Who do I talk to, to get permission to land this commercial spacecraft on mars?’” he says. “And unfortunately there is no good answer to that question right now.”

Nield also argues his office is the best suited to handle space situational awareness information. Today, the US Air Force oversees the sharing of information among civil, commercial and international users, but senior military leadership do not want their role to devolve into space traffic control, Nield says. Recently, the US secretary of transportation sent Congress a report supporting the transition of that role to a civil office, such as the FAA’s commercial space transportation office.

“We think it’s a transition that could be accomplished in a surprisingly short period of time and with a relatively modest income in terms of resources,” Nield says.

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