Regulation could boost amateur access to space

Blue Origin's suborbital rocket New Shepard recently completed its second flight only a few months after its first. It opens the doors to more test flights this year and commercial operations in 2017. Eventually tourists - or space flight participants - will ride the rocket across the 100 kilometer boundary with outer space. Credit: Blue Origin

Space tourism has been right around the corner for more than a decade. Now that reality is catching up to the hype, the industry and its regulators are looking at how to make it work. 

Several startup companies hope to carry tourists and scientific experiments on reusable vehicles. Blue Origin recently demonstrated the reusability of its New Shepard suborbital rocket. Virgin Galactic rolled out Unity, its suborbital rocketplane. XCor Aerospace is steadily, if slowly, assembling its Lynx suborbital rocketplane. High altitude balloon companies like America's World View Experience and Spain's InBloon expect to start carrying tourists above 99.9% of the Earth’s atmosphere in 2017. 

At the same time Boeing and SpaceX will have their next-generation space capsules ready to ferry Nasa astronauts next year. That could open the door for space tourist flights all the way into orbit.

Boeing's artistic rendering depicts the CST-100 Starliner capsule approaching the International Space Station. Nasa has awarded the company two contracts to carry astronauts to the space station. Credit: Boeing

These innovations could transform amateur space exploration. Tourism flights will let more people see Earth from space. The wider impact will come when the cost of sending experiments on suborbital and orbital launches makes space research more affordable for students and amateur scientists.

But the lack of regulation could make this new industry too risky for these companies to sustain their businesses. The space transportation industry is evolving from a handful of government-based or government-directed players to a busier, more diverse, commercially-motivated industry. That has led to a call from governments and industry for a stronger regulatory environment - but not too strong.

A scale model of World View Experience's near space capsule rose into the stratosphere beneath a high altitude balloon before parachuting back to the surface. The test flight demonstrated the systems that will let tourists spend hours watching Earth beneath the inky blackness of outer space. (Note: the horizon isn't really that curved - its a trick of the wide angle lens) Credit: World View Experience

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) is a United Nations agency that helps nations create consistent and seamless regulations for air transportation. It is working with the UN Office for Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA) to do the same for space transportation.

ICAO Council president Dr. Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu addressed the ICAO/UNOOSA AeroSpace Symposium in Dubai last week. He told an audience of industry executives, civil servants, and academics that his organization “… recognizes that sub-orbital and outer space flights will foster new tourism and transport markets and that investments in related research and development remain at a very healthy level.”

Dr. Aliu explained, however, that the opportunities face higher risks as the number of players grows. “If we do not find a way to embrace the important changes that aerospace innovators are generating, national requirements will not be harmonized, technology will be over- or under-regulated, and there will be more operational and commercial uncertainties.”

“We need to prepare ourselves for global international aerospace standards and regulations… to assure the safety and security of the skies we all need to share,” Dr. Aliu said, adding that “… the standards to be developed are expected to be performance-based rather than prescriptive, so that they encourage rather than hinder innovation.”

An interior view of the SpaceX Dragon's crew configuration. It will carry Nasa astronauts to the International Space Station next year and - who knows - maybe tourists a few years later. Credit: SpaceX

Given that most of the commercial space launch industry’s innovation is happening in the United States, you would expect American regulators to have a keen interest in what is happening at these forums. Officials from the United State’s Federal Aviation Administration Office of Commercial Space Transportation did take part in panel discussions at the AeroSpace Symposium. They addressed the safety concerns of commercial spaceports as well as the risks posed by orbital debris. 

The FAA, however, has limited authority over the American space launch industry. It licenses rocket launches to ensure they comply with international space law and do not threaten the safety of people on the ground. But the FAA’s authority over space travel still does not match its authority over air travel. Its regulations only apply while vehicles travel at altitudes below 60,000 feet. In addition, Congress enacted a “learning period” that shields suborbital flight operators from many safety regulations. But the FAA’s role will grow as space transportation becomes more diverse - and especially as tourists begin riding these craft to extreme altitudes.

FAA Deputy Administrator Mike Whitaker wrote recently that the FAA is “changing the way we approach commercial space transportation – moving from a system where we accommodate operations to one where we fully integrate them into our airspace.” This means shifting away from treating launches as one-off activities that require blocking air traffic within a wide radius of the rocket’s flight. As more vehicles leave the ground - and come back - that process, Whitaker argues, will become unworkable.

Last year’s passage of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act lays the groundwork for expanded the FAA’s responsibilities. It mandates reports on the nation’s readiness to transition “space situational awareness” - tracking spacecraft and debris in orbit - from the Department of Defense to the FAA. The act also mandates reports on how the FAA would regulate spacecraft operations in orbit - in effect, a space traffic control system. Throughout the suborbital industry’s learning period, which Congress extended through 2023, the FAA is charged with evaluating the industry’s readiness for a normal regulatory system.

It will be careful regulation like this that gives the commercial space industry the stability it will need to grow and thrive. Done right, the regulations will help lower the cost and increase the frequency of suborbital and orbital flights. That will make space more accessible for the amateurs. Space tourism will be an exclusive club for those wealthy enough to afford the $70,000 to $250,000 price tags. But the falling cost of space research will let pre-college and undergraduate students as well as amateur scientists send more experiments into space.