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FAA: Safety, Promotion Of Commercial Space Travel Needs Review

By | October 30, 2006

      While the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has done a “reasonable” job of ensuring safety of paying passengers on commercial flights into space, Congress should decide whether the FAA should begin both promoting space travel and heightening safety regulations on the industry, a new report states.

      That report by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) was performed for a key House member.

      A question here would be whether such a dual FAA role of promoter and regulator might create a conflict of interest, the GAO notes.

      As well, there is a question as to whether complying with government regulations could prove a crushingly heavy burden for an infant industry, the watchdog agency observed.

      This all is a somber and serious issue in an industry that has seen some upbeat successes. For example, SpaceShipOne is a vehicle that soon may whisk the well-heeled adventuresome or merely curious to the edge of space for $200,000.

      While that may be serious money to many, it’s chump change, a mere 1 percent of the $20 million that some space tourists have paid to ride on the Russian Soyuz vehicle. Of course, that latter ride includes going much higher and longer, replete with a visit to the International Space Station.

      In a way, the GAO report reprises a controversy that is more than half a century old.

      At the dawn of the commercial airlines industry decades ago, federal aviation regulators were given the dual task of both promoting the then-new business of transporting the public in new-fangled airplanes, and regulating the industry for safety.

      In a time when planes were propeller-driven with piston-powered engines, crashes were frequent, and it was not surprising that it might take some coaxing to persuade a wary traveling public to fly instead of taking trains or cars.

      That dual role of promotion and safety regulation, however, led to what some felt was a conflict of interest, in which the FAA was more interested in promoting the airline business and less interested in cracking down on potential safety hazards.

      Flying Blind, Flying Safe

      For example, a former inspector general of the Department of Transportation, Mary Schaivo, along with Sabra Chartrand, wrote a book detailing such concerns, “Flying Blind, Flying Safe.” (Avon Books)

      Schaivo alleged that the FAA formed a too-close relationship with the airlines it regulated, such as warning them ahead of time when FAA inspectors would examine an airplane.

      Now switch to the new frontier: space flights.

      To avoid expensive regulations throttling an infant commercial space travel industry so that it might grow, “Congress prohibited FAA from regulating crew and passenger safety before 2012, except in response to high-risk events,” the GAO noted, although some FAA safety rules already are in place.

      But GAO now says it might be time to at least consider whether heightened FAA safety regulation might be permitted to kick in sooner, rather than waiting until 2012.

      Even before the FAA has moved to impose new, broader safety regulations on commercial space travel, the industry has objected.

      “The industry has raised concerns about the costs of complying with regulations and about the flexibility of the regulations to accommodate launch differences,” the GAO noted.

      But those objections may not be valid, the GAO continued.

      The “FAA believes it has minimized compliance costs by basing its regulations on common safety standards and has allowed for flexibility by taking a case-by-case approach to licensing and by providing waivers in certain circumstances,” the GAO pointed out.

      When the FAA moves to more robustly regulate, and promote, commercial space travel, it’s going to be a far more daunting task than regulating airlines, the GAO cautioned.

      A Formidable Challenge

      “FAA faces several challenges and competitive issues in regulating and promoting space tourism,” the report added. “For example, FAA expects to need more experienced staff for safety oversight as new technologies for space tourism evolve, but has not estimated its future resource needs.”

      A telling expertise in the intricacies of sub-sonic commercial airliners may fall far short of the knowledge needed to oversee vehicles hurtling far faster than the speed of sound into the vacuum of space.

      And those won’t be the only hurdles to surmount.

      “Other challenges for FAA include determining the specific circumstances under which it would regulate space flight crew and passenger safety before 2012 and balancing its responsibilities for safety and promotion to avoid conflicts,” the GAO observed.

      Those are genuine, germane concerns, which must be studied and resolved, the watchdog agency indicated.

      “Recognizing the potential conflict in the oversight of commercial space launches, Congress required the Department of Transportation (DOT) to commission a report by December 2008 on several issues, including whether the promotion of human space flight should be separate from the regulation of such activity,” the report continued.

      As well, globalization of the commercial space flight industry also must be evaluated.

      “U.S. commercial space launch industry representatives said that they face competitive issues concerning high launch costs and export controls that can affect their ability to sell services overseas,” the GAO stated.

      Toward solving that problem, the “federal government has provided support to the industry to help lower launch costs,” the report continued.

      Some in the industry might ask what safety problems exist in the commercial launch industry that would warrant new regulations or rules imposed sooner than expected. Once again, the FAA already has some existing safety rules that the commercial spaceflight industry meets.

      And the GAO report and the record of safety in the industry bear that out.

      FAA Safety Rules Effective

      “Several measures indicate that FAA has provided a reasonable level of safety oversight for commercial launches,” the GAO reported.

      “For example, none of the 179 commercial launches that FAA licensed over the past 17 years resulted in fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage,” the report observed.

      But the FAA isn’t alone in attempting to ensure safety on these flights.

      “FAA shared safety oversight with the Department of Defense (DOD) for most of these launches because they took place at federal launch sites operated by DOD,” the report pointed out.

      “In addition, FAA’s licensing activities incorporate a system safety process, which GAO recognizes as effective in identifying and mitigating risks,” the GAO stated. “GAO’s analysis of FAA records indicates that the agency is appropriately applying management controls in its licensing activities, thereby helping to ensure that the licensees meet FAA’s safety requirements.”

      The FAA has developed safety regulations and training for agency employees, the report continued.

      Too, GAO authors of the report acknowledge the opportunity that successful SpaceShipOne flights has created.

      “In 2004, the successful launches of SpaceShipOne raised the possibility of an emerging U.S. commercial space tourism industry that would make human space travel available to the public,” the report stated.

      That said, however, the GAO still has concerns about an FAA conflict of interest if the agency must both promote and yet regulate the nascent commercial space travel industry.

      Therefore, the GAO recommended to lawmakers that if the DOT study and report don’t “fully address” the conflict of interest issue, then GAO would “suggest that Congress revisit FAA’s promotional role and decide whether it should be eliminated.”

      As well, “GAO recommends that FAA assess its future safety oversight resource needs and identify the circumstances that would trigger passenger safety regulation before 2012.”

      According to the report, the DOT agreed with the recommendations.

      The report that is entitled “Commercial Space Launches: FAA Needs Continued Planning and Monitoring to Oversee the Safety of the Emerging Space Tourism Industry” can be viewed in entirety by going to on the Web and clicking on Reports and Testimonies. The report is numbered GAO-07-16, and was prepared for Rep. James L. Oberstar of Minnesota, ranking Democrat on the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee.

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