NASA and FAA team to streamline, regulate commercial space access

NASA, FAA want to ensure safety, standard operating procedures for commercial space operators

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The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and NASA today said they signed an agreement to coordinate standards for commercial space travel of government and non-government astronauts to and from low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station (ISS).

The main goals of the agreement are to establish a framework for the emerging commercial US space industry to help streamline requirements and multiple sets of standards and ultimately to regulate public and crew safety.

RELATED: Could insurance coverage hobble commercial space flights?

The Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) signed by the two agencies establishes policy for operational missions to the space station. Commercial providers will still be required to obtain a license from the FAA for public safety. Crew safety and mission assurance will be NASA's responsibility.

It's clear from the success of Space X that we know that the private sector is ready to go into commercial space with cargo and astronauts are not far behind, said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.  "We are fostering private sector innovation while maintaining high standards of safety and reliability."

The policy established in the argreement clarifies for potential commercial providers the regulatory environment for operational missions to the orbiting laboratory. It also ensures that the two agencies will have compatible processes for ensuring public safety.   The FAA is responsible for regulating and licensing all U.S. private companies and individuals involved in commercial space transportation.

To date, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed 207 successful launches, including two non-orbital commercial human space flights in 2004 and the recent first launch to the ISS and re-entry of a non-manned commercial spacecraft, the FAA stated.

Here too is a look at what the FAA requirement facts:

  • An FAA license is required for any launch or reentry, or the operation of any launch or reentry site, as carried out by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States.
  • Once the FAA determines a license application package is complete, the FAA has 180 days to complete an evaluation and issue or deny a license.
  • The FAA evaluation includes a review of: public safety issues; the activity's environmental impact; any payload to be flown; any national security or foreign policy concerns, and whether or not the commercial space operator is appropriately insured.
  • To help facilitate in the eventual licensing process, the FAA can issue experimental permits, rather than licenses, for the launch or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets.
  • Experimental permits are issued for research and development; demonstrating compliance with requirements leading to licensing; or crew training prior to obtaining a license.

In May, the space tourism company Virgin Galactic said its spacecraft developer had been granted an experimental launch permit from the FAA to begin rocket-powered testing of its spaceships.   With the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation permit, Scaled Composites and its SpaceShipTwo craft will be able to test the aerodynamic performance of the spacecraft with the full weight of the rocket motor system on board. Integration of key rocket motor components, already underway will continue into the autumn. Scaled Composites expects to begin rocket powered, supersonic flights under the experimental permit toward the end of the year, Virgin Galactic stated.

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