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7 critical commercial spaceflight concerns the US must tackle

NASA’s role, FAA challenges combine to challenge commercial space development, GAO says

By , Network World
December 02, 2009 03:48 PM ET

Network World - There has been a positive vibe around the commercial space industry in recent month, with NASA’s potential changing role, predictions of increased investments and growth of new business opportunities such as space tourism. 

But such optimism needs to be tempered because there are a host of issues the government, namely the Federal Aviation Administration needs to address before commercial space operations can truly blast off, according to a report out today from watchdogs at the Government Accountability Office.

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According to the GAO report the key problems that need to be resolved include:

1. Who’s minding the store? The FAA faces challenges in ensuring that it has a sufficient number of staff with the necessary expertise to oversee the safety of commercial space launches and spaceport operations. The GAO said it raised concerns in the past that if the space tourism industry developed rapidly, the FAA’s responsibility for licensing reusable launch vehicle missions would greatly expand. The FAA’s experience in this area is limited because its launch safety oversight has focused primarily on unmanned launches of satellites into orbit using expendable launch vehicles, the GAO stated. Many companies are designing and developing space hardware that is being tested for the first time, requiring that FAA have a sufficient level of expertise to provide oversight. The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has hired 12 aerospace engineers, bringing its total staff to 71 full-time employees. In addition the FAA has established field offices at Edwards Air Force Base and NASA’s Johnson Space Center in anticipation of increased commercial space launches, the GAO report noted.

2. Who’s in charge here? Numerous federal agencies have responsibility for space activities, including the FAA’s oversight of commercial space launches, NASA’s scientific space activities, the Department of Defense’s national security space launches, the State Department’s involvement in international trade issues, and the Department of Commerce’s advocacy and promotion of the industry. According to the National Academy of Sciences, aligning the strategies of the various civil and national security space agencies will address many current issues arising from or exacerbated by the current uncoordinated, overlapping, and unilateral strategies. A national space launch strategy could identify and fill gaps in federal policy concerning the commercial space launch industry, according to senior FAA and Commerce officials, the GAO stated. The GAO stated that its research identified several gaps in federal policy for commercial space launches. For example, while FAA has safety oversight responsibility for the launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles, agency officials told the GAO that no federal entity has oversight of orbital operations, including the collision hazard while in orbit posed by satellites and debris such as spent rocket stages or defunct satellites, the GAO stated.

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