Commercial Space Effort Gets Boost From FAA
SpaceX's debut Falcon 9 rocket soars into space on its maiden flight during a June 4, 2010 test launch.
The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has taken some big steps to help push commercial spaceflight forward with two new programs to study and streamline the emerging industry.
In the last two months, the FAA has launched an online lessons-learned database dedicated to the private space transportation industry, as well as a new center to serve as its hub for commercial spaceflight issues.
The new database, announced Sept. 24, creates a way for people in the nascent field to share useful information quickly and easily, FAA officials said. The idea is to improve the safety of commercial launch and re-entry activities. [6 Companies That Could Launch People Into Space]
FAA has a similar database covering commercial air travel, which compiles information about plane crashes and their various causes.
The new space database is a provisional effort at the moment, according to FAA officials. The agency wants to gauge public and industry interest before deciding whether to ramp it up, they said.
New center of excellence
But the FAA is doing more than compiling and helping share information. The agency has also created a new center to study and address the challenges of commercial spaceflight.
The Air Transportation Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation is a consortium made up of industry, universities and government agencies. It is led by New Mexico State University and began operations in late August.
"Commercial space flight is ready to play a greater role in the nation's space program," FAA Administrator Randy Babbitt said in a statement. "Universities working with industry partners will fuel the research necessary to help keep us in the forefront of both technology and safety in space."
The center, one of nine the FAA has established over the years, will perform research in four core areas: space launch operations and traffic management; launch vehicle systems, payloads, technologies and operations; commercial human spaceflight; and space commerce (including space law, space insurance, space policy and space regulation).
NASA officials said the agency supports the new center of excellence and will be an active participant.
"This collaborative effort initiated by the FAA aligns perfectly with NASA's evolving relationship and support for a vital U.S. commercial space industry and with our vision of a 21st-century space launch complex," said Bob Cabana, director of NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida.
Commercial spaceflight taking off
The FAA's new efforts are in line with the Obama administration's new space plan.
Obama's National Space Policy, unveiled in June, envisions U.S. commercial space vehicles and companies taking on a larger role in the near future, especially after the retirement of the space shuttle next year.
The last scheduled shuttle mission, Endeavour, is set to launch in February 2011, though Congress approved plans for an extra mission earlier this week as part of a NASA authorization bill. The bill still has to be approved by a congressional appropriations committee before the extra, third shuttle flight will be final, NASA officials have said.
After the space shuttle fleet retires, NASA will still need to ferry astronauts to and from the International Space Station.
Russian spacecraft will do this job in the short term. The national space plan calls for private firms to start carrying the load as soon as they can.
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