Three leading space companies agree: no new regulations on human spaceflight

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Three leading space companies told Congress this week that the industry needs time to mature before federal regulators introduce new safety guidelines for human spaceflight — but that existing regulatory processes for launch are in dire need of improvement.

SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic were all in agreement that the 20-year moratorium on federal regulations for human spaceflight missions — which is due to expire on January 1 — should be substantially extended. That extension would provide a longer “learning period” for both the companies and the regulators, representatives said.

“Congress should pass a multi-year extension for the human spaceflight learning period,” SpaceX’s VP of build and flight reliability Bill Gerstenmaier told lawmakers. “Human spaceflight represents a tiny fraction of all space launches and is properly regulated today under a responsible and balanced framework given the nascent state of the industry.”

Sirisha Bandla, Virgin Galactic’s VP of government affairs and research, echoed these comments in her testimony, noting that there still isn’t substantial data to base regulations on: “There are only three companies currently carrying humans to space, and it would be premature to base occupant safety regulations on this extremely small set of data at this time,” she said.

In September, California Representative Kevin McCarthy introduced a bill that would extend the moratorium for an additional eight years. Bandla said Virgin Galactic supports that eight-year extension.

The representatives testified before the Senate Commerce, Science, and Transportation Committee on Wednesday. Notably, the committee did not invite the Federal Aviation Administration, the regulator that currently ensures the safety of the public during commercial launch operations, to testify.

The moratorium on regulations was due to relapse on October 1, but lawmakers added a three-month extension to a stopgap bill to avert a government shutdown. For its part, the FAA said in a report submitted to Congress last month that it’s ready to move forward with establishing regulations. However, even if Congress does end the sunset period in January, new regulations wouldn’t be established immediately: The FAA established a rulemaking committee over the summer that will spend 18 months working on a set of recommendations for a safety framework, and the FAA certainly won’t move forward with anything before it receives those recommendations.

The three companies, as well as two industry experts, also emphasized that the FAA would need more funding to deal with launch licenses and to enforce regulations — at least double, Gerstenmaier suggested. Representatives repeatedly stated that they wanted regulations to be more “streamlined” across regulatory agencies, which often span federal, state and even more local jurisdictions. Gerstenmaier said that Starship has been ready for its next flight test “for more than a month,” and that it was just waiting on the multiple agencies for their reviews.

Phil Joyce, Blue Origin’s senior VP of New Shepard, suggested the FAA needed three things to improve how it regulates spaceflight: a more streamlined process, more resources to keep up with licensing and more time to gain experience overseeing human spaceflight.

“Congress and the FAA helped accelerate the development of the spaceflight industry, and now the FAA is struggling to keep pace,” he said. “Streamlined processes will help, but the FAA needs more funding to deal with the increase in launches.”

Ultimately, the three companies said that improving regulations around spaceflight will only help to bolster America’s space program, especially as near-peer adversaries move quickly to develop their own space initiatives.

“The pace of American regulation must match the pace of American innovation,” Gerstenmaier said. “We are falling behind.”

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