AMU Editor's Pick Original Space

New FAA Rules Could Slow Growth of Civilian Space Flights

By David E. Hubler
Edge Contributor

If all goes well, one of the world’s richest men will be blasted into space next month by his own company. This might sound like a metaphor for the ouster of a failed CEO by his corporate board of directors, but it is not.

On July 20, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is scheduled to board his 60-foot rocket Blue Origin spacecraft along with several other astronaut wannabees, including “an anonymous bidder who will pay $28 million to be aboard.” The flight plan is to cross the Karman Line, an “imaginary boundary sitting 62 miles or 100 kilometers above sea level,” according to Business Insider. “NASA, meanwhile, says space begins at just 50 miles up, meaning anyone who crosses above that is an astronaut in the eyes of the US government.”  

A Successful Flight Would Make Bezos the First Billionaire in Space

Regardless of which mile marker you prefer, a successful flight would make Bezos the first billionaire in space — that is, unless fellow billionaire Richard Branson beats him to it. The Washington Post, which Bezos owns, reports that Sir Richard is “also looking to fly soon as well perhaps even before Bezos” on board his Virgin Galactic spacecraft.

Considering the paucity of true billionaires around and the even fewer who own their own spaceship and are willing to part with a mere pittance of their wealth to put their life on the line, it will probably eventually fall soon to millionaires and the simply foolhardy wealthy to turn civilian spaceflight into a viable business venture.

That’s where the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) may have to step in again following its announcement of regulations in March of 2020 as mandated by Congress in the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004.

The Law Required a Phased Approach in Regulating Commercial Human Space Flight

“Recognizing that this is a fledgling industry, the law required a phased approach in regulating commercial human space flight, with regulatory standards evolving as the industry matures,” FAA statement explained.

As the Post noted, “Although the FAA requires launch companies to protect people and property on the ground, the passengers are governed only by an ‘informed consent’ standard, meaning they have to sign a waiver and be made aware of the risks….”

That awareness currently includes knowing that 1) the industry is “in a learning period” and 2) “the United States government has not certified the launch vehicle and any reentry vehicle as safe for carrying flight crew or spaceflight participants.”

In addition, the FAA requires launch vehicle operators “to provide certain safety-related information and identify what an operator must do to conduct a licensed launch with a human on board. In addition, launch operators are required to inform passengers of the risks of space travel generally and the risks of space travel in the operators [sic] vehicle in particular. These regulations also include training and general security requirements for space flight participants.”

(One wonders whether Columbus would ever have set sail if Queen Isabella of Spain had levied such conditions on the intrepid Italian seaman.)

At Least One Congressman Is Concerned about the Growth of Commercial Space Tourism

With Congress’s learning period due to expire in 2023, at least one congressman is concerned about the growth of commercial space tourism. Congressman Peter A. DeFazio (D-Ore.)  is chairman of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee. At a congressional hearing last week reported by the Post, he warned that unless new regulations are put in place before then, the FAA “won’t be able to regulate for the safety of the flying public.”

DeFazio also criticized the FAA’s dual mandate to regulate and promote the space industry, which he called a conflict of interest. He said, “the FAA’s job is to regulate in the public interest.” It’s up to NASA and the Commerce Department to promote commercial space.

So watch this space (sic) for future developments before you call Expedia to book your flight.

David E. Hubler brings a variety of government, journalism and teaching experience to his position as a Quality Assurance Editor. David’s professional background includes serving as a senior editor at CIA and the Voice of America. He has also been a managing editor for several business-to-business and business-to-government publishing companies.

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