Monday, February 16, 2004

Space tourism will not take off this year. But the hoped for renaissance in space travel will move closer to reality if humans successfully blast off in privately funded spacecraft.

In an effort to win the $10 million X Prize, two U.S. teams have applied for what would be the first launch licenses granted to manned commercial space flights. Earlier this month, Patricia Grace Smith, the Federal Aviation Administration’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation (AST), said, “We’re very close to a license determination.” The flights will be suborbital, since the X Prize will go to the first craft to complete two manned flights to an altitude of about 100 kilometers (62 miles) within two weeks. Approximately 150 unmanned commercial launches have taken place in the United States since 1989, lofting everything from the Lunar Prospector to a constellation of Navy communications satellites. Four commercially licensed U.S. spaceports already exist, and several others have been proposed.

Commercial launches can also take place at federal facilities, but regardless of where they blast off from, private companies must cover most expenses, including licensing fees. For large sets of nearly identical launches, companies can purchase program licenses that last five years. The flights pose few risks to people, since they all carry a tested termination system.

Manned commercial flights will be different. They all will be experimental initially, and explosive aborts will be unacceptable. On such flights, the current statutory framework may not be sufficient to cover all possible contingencies.

Two bills under congressional consideration might help. Sen. John McCain’s measure, S. 1260, would extend current law and direct the secretary of transportation to develop a regulatory regime for manned suborbital flights. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher’s measure, HR. 3752 — which passed through the House Science Committee earlier this month — is more tightly tailored to current circumstances, a consequence of FAA representatives having worked closely with Mr. Rohrabacher’s staff in drafting it. The bill explicitly gives the AST regulatory authority for commercial space flights, allows the AST to issue experimental permits for new vehicle launches with relative alacrity compared to the current licensing regime and requires a study of the current indemnification framework for commercial flight.

Under current law, the FAA requires private companies to protect themselves against third-party liability for up to $500 million per launch. The government is obligated to pay for third-party damage between $500 million and $1.5 billion. Some feel that the federal government’s contribution is too costly, but company representatives would like it to stay in place, in part because other nations provide similar protections.

Such matters should be debated in more detail, since the manned commercial space market is moving closer to a take-off point. The flights that win the X Prize could be precursors to a vast enterprise. Regulators must find ways to account for the inherent risks of manned space flight, while encouraging commercial ventures into the skies.

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