The commercial space industry wants updated regulations, more aid
WASHINGTON — Out-of-date regulations, a looming backlog of license applications and a lack of viable destinations in Low Earth Orbit threaten to hamper the nation’s burgeoning commercial space industry.
That’s what several commercial space executives this week told a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee panel overseeing the space program.
What they want is a government assist when it comes to helping companies develop technologies, handle the growing volume of launches and extend liability and intellectual property protections. What they also want is for government to streamline and simplify regulations they say are already proving cumbersome.
For example, the Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force, two agencies in charge of licensing commercial space activities, need to update regulations that recognize the industry’s growing use of reusable rockets, Rob Meyerson, president of Blue Origin, told committee members.
The company, owned by Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, will begin flying test pilots next year on suborbital rides of its New Shepard reusable booster and capsule.
While pursuing an FAA launch license of its New Glenn spacecraft recently at a federal range, Blue Origin officials found they had to comply with “entirely different but equally rigorous” set of regulations for both the FAA and the Air Force for the same vehicle.
“This is duplicative and onerous and will increase costs, delays and uncertainty,” Meyerson told senators.
Robert Bigelow, whose Bigelow Aerospace builds inflatable space habitats, said he’s worried there aren’t enough destinations in the Low Earth Orbit aside from the International Space Station. He wants to help develop a "lunar depot" that would orbit the moon and enable access to the lunar surface.
The industry needs places to test transportation systems, try out operating networks and conduct experiments. And it needs customers willing to pay for such services, he told senators.
“NASA is too focused on just transportation systems to the ISS,” Bigelow said. “Whether the (space station) continues or not, additional destinations besides the ISS are vital to sustain a viable space crew and cargo enterprise with new markets that eventually will replace the (orbiting lab).
Others who testified also said the FAA office that reviews and issues commercial launch licenses needs a boost in staffing given the impending increase of applications aerospace firms are expected to file in the coming years.
And they want the government to permanently extend indemnification protections to insure companies if a mishap causes catastrophic third-party losses. The current protections expire in 2025. And they want to ensure any intellectual property developed by U.S. companies while they’re in space belongs to the company.
It wasn’t just a gripe session.
They praised NASA’s use of Space Act agreements that give commercial space firms more flexibility than traditional government contracts.
And the aerospace executives were appreciative of the gains made under the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act Congress passed in 2015 that has helped accelerate the number of commercial launches in recent months, and paved the way for dozens more to come.
That law extended the life of the space station to 2024, provided U.S. citizens who collect materials from asteroids the right to keep those samples, and gave companies more time to meet certain safety standards so they can develop technology and work through issues without potentially costly and burdensome rules.
Florida Sen. Bill Nelson, the top Democrat on the panel, told them the steps forward must be pragmatic.
“We all know challenges exist but the key to success here is balance,” said Nelson, whose home state has seen commercial activity spike at Cape Canaveral. “Balance between public and private space endeavors, between competition and cooperation, (and) between risk and public safety.”