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SpaceX urges extension of ban on human spaceflight regulations

SpaceX urges extension of ban on human spaceflight regulations
The SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket with the company's Dragon spacecraft onboard is seen on the launch pad at Launch Complex 39A as preparations continue for the Crew-7 mission at Nasa's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, US, 24 August 2023. (Photo: EPA-EFE / CRISTOBAL HERRERA-ULASHKEVICH)

Space Exploration Technologies plans to lobby US Congress on Wednesday for a multiyear extension of a ban on imposing safety regulations on commercial human spaceflight. 

An executive at Elon Musk’s rocket company, who will testify at a Senate subcommitee hearing, is arguing the Federal Aviation Administration is already struggling to keep pace with a rapidly shifting rocket launch industry and needs more resources. 

“We want to keep moving as fast paced as we can,” said William Gerstenmaier, vice president of build and flight reliability at SpaceX, in an interview with Bloomberg News. “And we don’t want to be held up where we don’t need to be held up.”

Even without the authority to set standards for commercial spacecraft, the FAA needs more staffing, Gerstenmaier said. 

“They’ve been supportive to us, but we think they’re just getting buried, and we just see them getting more and more busy in the future,” Gerstenmaier said. 

The FAA didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

Since 2004, there’s been a moratorium on the FAA setting safety rules for spacecraft that take humans to and from space. People who fly to space on commercial vehicles do so under an “informed consent” framework, where they must acknowledge that the spacecraft they’ll be riding on has not been certified by the government. Those who support the ban say the commercial space industry is still in a “learning period” and premature regulations could stifle innovation.

The nearly 20-year moratorium was set to come to an end on 1 October. However, Congress extended the ban three months to 1 January in a stopgap measure to fund the federal government. It’s unclear if another extension will occur. 

The subject will be discussed during a hearing of the Senate subcommittee on space and science on Wednesday. Representatives from Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic will join Gerstenmaier as witnesses. 

Regulations 

SpaceX also criticised the rules and regulations surrounding the licensing process for rocket launches and spacecraft re-entering Earth’s atmosphere, what is known as Part 450 of FAA’s licensing procedure. Part 450 was created to streamline rocket licensing by creating performance-based requirements. 

SpaceX argues the FAA has struggled to implement those regulations effectively since companies have different methods for proving similar requirements.

“I think part of the 450 problem was we might have jumped to regulations too fast,” Gerstenmaier said. “They were well meaning and well intentioned, they were supposed to streamline things, but then the devil is in the details and it actually slowed us down.”

In July, the FAA announced plans to create a rulemaking committee to determine potential new safety standards that could be put in place when the moratorium ends. The rulemaking committee plans to gather recommendations on what those standards should be from members of the space industry. 

Ultimately, SpaceX thinks that’s the right approach, Gerstenmaier said. However, the company would prefer to extend the moratorium while potential regulations are debated at the FAA, arguing that the informed consent framework does give the agency the ability to step in and issue safety standards if a major accident occurs with humans on board.

“They have a tremendous amount of authority in today’s world, even though it’s still a learning period,” Gerstenmaier said.

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