How far and fast can commercial space universe grow?

Regulations, budget concerns threaten growth but commercial space technology moves forward

virgin galactic
The development of the commercial space industry has in the past been slow and deliberate but that seems like it's about to change with a whirlwind of developments that could shape or break its immediate future. 

First, today the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics is holding a hearing to go over the Federal Aviation Administration's 2012 budget request which includes close to $27 million -- nearly a 75% increase over 2010 --  in the budget for the group tasked with overseeing commercial space development, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation also known as AST.  Could congress really authorize such an increase?

More on commercial space: Eight hot commercial space projects

Then there's this from the Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics: "The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 included two related provisions that were the subject of much of today's discussion: the first authorized AST to regulate commercial human space flight launch systems; the second prohibited AST from regulating commercial human space flight for eight years in order to give space tourism companies an opportunity to design, develop and operate new and experimental launch systems. December 2012 marks the end of the eight-year regulatory ban, and the debate centered on the need for extending the ban. Roughly six-and-a-half years have elapsed since the bill's enactment, and there is an effort underway in Congress to extend the regulatory prohibition another eight years."

Also this week the Government Accountability Office issued a review of the issues the commercial space industry and the FAA face going forward. 

From the GAO report:  "In overseeing the commercial space launch industry, including the safety of space tourism, FAA faces several challenges. These include determining whether its current safety regulations are appropriate for all types of commercial space vehicles, operations, and launch sites; continuing to avoid conflicts between its dual role as safety regulator and industry promoter; and addressing policy and procedural issues when it integrates the operations of spacecraft into its next generation air transportation system. The industry faces competitive issues such as high launch costs that affect its ability to sell its services abroad. Finally, coordinating the federal response to the commercial space industry's expansion is an issue for the federal government in the absence of a national space launch strategy for setting priorities and establishing federal roles."

The GAO in the past has noted too that the FAA will need to determine whether its current safety regulations are appropriate for all types of commercial space vehicles, operations and launch sites. If the industry begins to expand, as senior FAA officials predict, to 200 to 300 annual launches, a reassessment of the FAA's resources and areas of expertise would be appropriate. Moreover, as NASA-sponsored commercial space launches increase, the FAA's need for regulatory resources and expertise may change, the GOA stated.

For its part the FAA this week said that on May 26, 2011 it will hold a public hearing where the FAA says it wants to gather information about how to define what it calls a e regulatory framework for orbital human spaceflight. The FAA said it is interested in a number of topics including:

  • What the appropriate level of safety the FAA should target with its regulations,
  • How best to incorporate government and industry standards into the licensing process,
  • How much flight testing should be required, and
  • How much control over a spacecraft ground personnel and flight crew should have.

While the regulatory battle heats up, the commercial space technology part of the equation continues to grow.  For example the Air Force this week said it will host a space test program meeting next week ahead of expected contract offerings, or Broad Agency Announcements looking to recruit commercial space providers.

From the Air Force: The Space Test Program looks to study the feasibility of using commercial capabilities to meet selected military launch needs for rapid and lower cost alternatives. Interest is in exploring possibilities of launches for individual Space Vehicles as payloads and Hosted Payloads. Space Vehicle Payloads are complete spacecraft in need of launch. Hosted Payloads are experiments needing a space vehicle, integration and testing, launch, and on-orbit operations support through the host space vehicle.

Also significant this week was the announcement that space tourism player Virgin Galactic had successfully glide-tested suborbital spaceship SpaceShipTwo.  According to Virgin Galactic: After a 45 minute climb to the desired altitude of 51,500 feet, SpaceShipTwo was released cleanly from {its mother aircraft known as VMS Eve] and established a stable glide profile before deploying, for the first time, its re-entry or "feathered" configuration by rotating the tail section of the vehicle upwards to a 65 degree angle to the fuselage. It remained in this configuration with the vehicle's body at a level pitch for approximately 1 minute and 15 seconds whilst descending, almost vertically, at around 15,500 feet per minute, slowed by the powerful shuttlecock-like drag created by the raised tail section. At around 33,500 feet the pilots reconfigured the spaceship to its normal glide mode and executed a smooth runway touch down."

Meanwhile the original space tourism company Space Adventures said it has offered to equip the Russian Soyuz TMA spaceship with additional living space for eight-day commercial flights around the moon. Space Adventures estimates that by 2020 approximately 140 more private individuals will have launched to orbital space.  These participants would include private individuals, corporate, university and non-profit researchers, lottery winners and journalists.  Destinations would include the International Space Station, commercial space stations and orbital free-flys.

Of course recently NASA split almost $270 million amongst Blue Origin, Sierra Nevada, SpaceX and Boeing for development of commercial spaceships or carry astronauts to low-Earth orbit and the International Space Station.

Follow Michael Cooney on Twitter: nwwlayer8  

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