House hearing revisits long-standing commercial space transportation issues

WASHINGTON – A House aviation subcommittee hearing on commercial space transportation on June 16 plowed familiar ground, revisiting a wide range of issues that have yet to be resolved.

One of the few new topics that came up during the House Transportation Committee’s Aviation Subcommittee hearing concerned the Federal Aviation Administration’s response to SpaceX’s violation of its launch license when it launched its December launch. Starship SN8 prototype. SpaceX performed this suborbital flight despite weather conditions that violated its license “far-field blast overpressure” limits to protect the uninvolved public.

The FAA briefly halted Starship testing, forcing SpaceX to investigate and take corrective action, the agency said in February. The FAA did not impose any other sanctions on the company.

This prompted a March 25 letter from Representatives Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) And Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), Chairs of the House Transport Committee and its Space Subcommittee, respectively, to FAA administrator Steve Dickson, expressing disappointment. “that the FAA refused to conduct an independent review of the event and, to our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action.”

During the hearing, DeFazio asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the letter. Monteith said his office was happy with the way SpaceX had handled the violation of its launch license.

“We would not have allowed them to resume flight operations if I had not been convinced that they had changed their procedures effectively and addressed the safety culture issues that we saw” during the launch of the SN8, said he declared.

Despite the hearing’s title, “Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight,” SpaceX was not among the witnesses. An industry source said the company was not invited to testify.

An industry witness who appeared was Tory Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance. “It is vital that Congress provide the FAA with the support it needs to effectively monitor and enforce the licensing process,” he said in his opening statement. “Responsible operators will comply with FAA regulations and license. Those who fail to do so would face law enforcement and hard-hitting consequences. “

Dual mandates and dueling committees

Much of the hearing, which lasted more than two hours, as well as a two-hour recess due to votes in the House, examined long-standing issues surrounding the regulation of commercial space flights and the activities of the FAA.

DeFazio, a longtime critic of the FAA’s “dual mandate” to both regulate and promote the commercial space transportation industry, reiterated his desire to end that mandate. “NASA can promote commercial space, the Commerce Department can promote it, anyone,” he said, promising to introduce legislation to end this dual tenure. “It’s not up to the FAA to promote the commercial space and regulate it at the same time.”

Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, said the last review of the FAA’s dual tenure in commercial space transportation took place in 2008. The Department of Transportation concluded at that time “that “There was no compelling reason to remove the promotional role for FAA until 2012,” she said. However, while that report recommended periodic reviews, there had been none since. “Another review may be warranted.”

Monteith said there has not been a formal dual tenure review, the FAA is looking into the matter more informally. “It’s all about safety,” he said of the work of his office, noting that his role of “encouraging, facilitating and promoting” does not extend to activities like marketing.

Committee members also discussed the integration of space launches and re-entries into the national airspace system. It became a hot topic in 2018, when the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket blocked the airspace off the coast of Florida for several hours on a weekday afternoon, diverting hundreds of airline flights. aerial.

Commercial aviation and the launch industries have since worked to better coordinate these activities, but not to the satisfaction of members like DeFazio, who said he opposed the idea of ​​telling airline passengers their flights were delayed. “because a millionaire or billionaire 15 minutes of weightlessness.

He stressed the slow progress of a project called Space Data Integrator, which aims to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, thereby reducing the size and duration of space restrictions. air. This project has been in development for several years.

Monteith said there was no specific timeline for the full commissioning of the spatial data integrator, although operational testing is expected to begin in the coming months. Work has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization.

The expected growth in launch activity over the next few years is also accelerating work on better integration of launches into the national airspace system. “The FAA must be built on a model of collaboration between the aviation and aerospace sectors,” said Captain Joe DePete, president of the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA), at the hearing. . “ALPA believes that, more than ever, the FAA, industry and workers can work together to create a national space integration strategy. “

A third issue familiar to the hearing concerned the so-called “learning period,” which restricts the ability of the FAA to pass regulations regarding the safety of spaceflight participants, so that the industry can acquire sufficient power. experience to serve as a basis for such regulations. The learning period was established in a 2004 commercial space launch bill and was initially scheduled to last eight years. It has since been extended several times due to a lack of commercial activity in human spaceflight, most recently until 2023.

Representative Garret Graves (R-La.), A prominent member of the aviation subcommittee, suggested it was time to consider another extension of the apprenticeship period. “Congress will have to decide whether to extend the learning period, let it expire or find an alternative political solution,” he said.

Mike Moses, president of space missions and security at Virgin Galactic, argued that an extension of the learning period would be warranted. “The industry is still in its infancy and it takes more time to have informed discussions on what the regulatory framework should look like in the future to support human spaceflight,” he said. declared. “Extending the learning period would allow these discussions to take place in Congress, in partnership with industry and the FAA. “

This hearing is not the first time that the House transport committee has examined commercial space transportation. It has held hearings every two years for the past several years on the subject, but has taken little action beyond those hearings.

This is, at least in part, because commercial space transportation falls under the purview of the House Science Committee. While the hearing was underway, Representatives Frank Lucas (R-Okla.) And Brian Babin (R-Texas), senior members of the House Science Committee and its Space Subcommittee, released a letter they sent to Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg on a commercial space flight.

The letter stated that the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 had been prepared by the House Science Committee, as well as commercial launch bills in 2004 and 2015. These bills “were drafted by the management of the committee and only referred to committee, ”they wrote in the letter.

Larsen admitted at the hearing that space was not within the purview of his committee, but that its effects on airspace made it relevant. “We don’t think we have jurisdiction over space, but you have to travel through airspace to get into space, which I like to think of as ‘our space’,” he said. declared. “That’s why this audience is so important. “

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