Maintaining Safety and Updating Regulations for the Commercial Space Industry Receive Bipartisan Support

The Subcommittee on Aviation of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure held a hearing “Starships and Stripes Forever—An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight” on June 16. Two panels of witnesses presented their testimonies.

Panel I

  • Wayne R. Monteith, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Federal Aviation Administration
  • Heather Krause, Director, Physical Infrastructure, Government Accountability Office

Panel II

The witnesses’ testimonies and questions from committee members focused on four key issues as regards to the role of FAA in the commercial space industry and the future of commercial space industry. The key issues were:

  • Safety as a priority for the commercial space industry
  • Challenges of outdated industry regulations dating back to 1990s and early 2000s
  • The dual mandate of FAA as a regulator and promoter of commercial space industry
  • Integration of commercial space industry in the National Air Space (NAS)

Safety in commercial space industry

All Committee members were in agreement that safety is the top issue in aviation, aerospace, and the emerging commercial space industry operations. Rep. Donald Payne Jr. (D-NJ) brought to the attention of the Committee and witnesses the extensive work and time it has taken FAA and National Aeronautics and Space Administration to establish the current safety regulations in aviation and aerospace industries. The importance of safety in the commercial space industry was underscored in the testimonies of Salvatore T. “Tory” Bruno of United Launch Alliance, Mike Moses of Virgin Galactic, and Frank DiBello of Space Florida. Although all 144 commercial space launches conducted so far have been without major incidents or accidents, there remains a lot of work to be done on safety regulations for the commercial space industry.

Challenges of outdated commercial space regulations

The commercial space industry is only in its second decade of existence. In response to Rep. Garret Graves’ (R-LA) concern over the “outdated and overly burdensome” commercial space regulations, Monteith responded that updating regulations on management of commercial space debris, Part 440 Financial Responsibility, and commercial spaceport regulations are a priority for the FAA. Going forward, regulations need to be strengthened to support all NAS users including commercial space flights, commercial airline flights, and unmanned aerial systems.

The dual mandate of the FAA

FAA regulates commercial space industry and promotes it at the same time. Because of the potential for a conflict of interest, Committee chairman Peter DeFazio (D-OR) argued that in the interest of public health and safety, the FAA should end its dual mandate in the commercial space industry. Krause reiterated comments expressed in her testimony on the need to review the dual mandate of FAA, which was last reviewed in 2008.

Integration of commercial space in the NAS

In May 2020, FAA published the Commercial Space Integration into the National Airspace System: Concept of Operations which details the management of NAS during commercial space launches and reentry operations. Without committing to a specific date of release, Monteith mentioned that the development of the space data integrator tool, which will facilitate integration of commercial data in NAS, has made significant progress and FAA expects to release it in the coming months. In his testimony, DePete highlighted the need for collaboration between aviation, aerospace, and commercial space industry partners.

Other issues raised in the hearing include the challenges of commercial space workforce development as FAA aims to attract a limited pool of talented professionals and management of commercial space mission debris, a concern echoed by both committee members and witnesses.  Overall, Republican and Democratic members agreed that proactive actions are needed to support the development of the growing commercial space industry going forward.

The commercial space industry has experienced exponential growth in the last few years. According to Monteith, compared to 2011 when FAA issued one launch license every five weeks, currently, FAA issues a license every five days. The resounding issue for witnesses in the second panel was that the future of the United States as a leader in commercial space exploration is dependent on the actions taken today to improve safety and efficiency, update regulations in the fast-growing industry, and promoting collaboration between commercial space industry stakeholders. ­

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