UPDATE: Interim Ground Rules Proposed For Civilian Spaceflight Industry

The FederalAviation Administration is set to publicly unveil aspecial permit aimed at helping the reusable suborbital rocket industry grow, whilespeeding up the development of passenger-carrying spaceships.

The "experimental-class"permit rules are to be open for public comment and discussed May 26 at an openmeeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) at theFederal Aviation Administration (FAA) Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

Spearheadingthe guidelines is the Office of the AssociateAdministrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST), the only space-relatedline of business within the FAA and under the wing of the U.S. Department ofTransportation.

On December23, 2004, President George W. Bush signed into law the Commercial Space LaunchAmendments Act of 2004 (CSLAA). That Act advances the development of theemerging commercial space flight industry and makes the DOT and the FAAresponsible for regulating private human space flight.

The CSLAAestablishes, among other functions, an experimental permit regime fordevelopmental reusable suborbital rockets. Before the Act, a license was theonly mechanism available to the FAA to okay launch or reentry. Under the CSLAA,an experimental permit may be used.

Go out and fly

Theguidelines fulfill the FAA's requirement to provide direction on theimplementation of the CSLAA with respect to experimental permits before issuingregulations. The guidelines are not binding, and until regulations called forin the CSLAA are issued, the FAA will issue permits on a case-by-case basis.

"We'rehoping that this allows the reusable launch vehicle developers to build theirvehicles and start flying without too much regulatory burden," said RandyRepcheck, Deputy Manager in AST's Systems Engineering and Training Division. Heis the team leader on the experimental permit project.

"That's thegoal of these guidelines. We're protecting public health and safety, but we'retrying to do so in a reduced manner so that reusable launch vehicle developerscan go out and fly," Repcheck told SPACE.com.

Permit guidelines

In part,the FAA "Guidelines for Experimental Permits for Reusable Suborbital Rockets"apply to a person proposing to launch or reenter a reusable suborbital rocketsolely for the following reasons:

  • Conducting research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques;
  • Showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license; or
  • Crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or reentry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued.

The wide-rangingguidelines to be issued allow the FAA to issue a permit to an applicant, undera set of terms, including:

  • The FAA has found that the applicant is capable of conducting its proposed launch or reentry without jeopardizing public health and safety, the safety of property, or any national security or foreign policy interest of the United States;
  • The FAA issues an experimental permit authorizing an unlimited number of launches or reentries for a particular suborbital rocket design;
  • One permit may be issued to an applicant to operate multiple vehicles of a particular reusable suborbital rocket design;
  • The FAA will identify in the experimental permit the type of changes that the "permittee" may make to the reusable suborbital rocket design without invalidating the permit.

Theduration of an experimental permit will be one year from the date the permit isissued. A permittee may apply to renew its permit.

Moment in history

Theseguidelines, Repcheck said, permit reusable launch vehicle (RLV) developers tocollect data helpful in obtaining a license to start flying paying customers.

Theexperimental-class permits are to be available until the final regulations areissued.

That finalrulemaking will, by law, be issued in late June 2006. There will be a notice ofproposed rulemaking issued in December of this year, open to the public andindustry for comment, Repcheck noted.

"The FAAand AST recognize that this is an emerging field, much like in the days ofbarnstorming," said Hank Price, an FAA spokesperson. "We need to have in mindways to help this industry grow and to emerge...and that's the balance we thinkwe're achieving here. Protecting the uninvolved public but also helping thisindustry to grow."

Repchecksaid there's always a challenge in writing regulations and attempting to pleasedifferent constituents, be they the public, industry and the safety community."We're trying to bridge all of those...bridging the airplane world with therocket world," he said.

"It seemsto be a moment in history," Repcheck concluded. "We certainly hope it is.That's what we're all hoping for here."

Level of risk

Speaking prior to release of the guidelines, Patricia GraceSmith, AST's Associate Administrator said the intent of the rules are to givespace launch vehicle developers the ability to experiment and test theirvehicles in much the same way that airplane developers do.

"It will be a step beneath the full fledge license and willallow the opportunity for the developers to take a level of risk," Smith told SPACE.com last week. "We're looking forways to become more flexible in regulating the industry," she explained.

DOT's chief, Secretary Norman Mineta, has also spotlightedthe new guidelines, noting last week that they "will shorten the time andlessen the burden on launch vehicle developers much like the aviation communityhas for experimental aircraft."

While Mineta's office has the responsibility to protectpublic safety, "our approach at the Department of Transportation is to allowthis industry the freedom to develop, mindful that it is still in its infancy,"he said.


The new guidelines come at a time when the era of personalsuborbital spaceflight is clearly taking shape. Flights to the edge of space bythe piloted SpaceShipOne last year have prodded policymakers into action.Back-to-back flights of the craft led to grabbing the $10 million Ansari XPrize purse by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, California.

Prompted by the privately-financed suborbital hops is thecreation of Virgin Galactic by adventurer and high-roller, Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic has cut a deal with the makers ofSpaceShipOne to build a fleet of five passenger-hauling suborbital vehicles.Even before such a vehicle takes to the air, the space travel operator has morethan 7,000 requests for initial reservations and about 1,500 down payments onthe $200,000 per seat price tag.

AST's Smith said last week at the 24thInternational Space Development Conference, sponsored by the National SpaceSociety, that the suborbital space tourism business has the potential to handle15,000 passengers and generate $700 million in revenues per year by 2021.

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Leonard David
Space Insider Columnist

Leonard David is an award-winning space journalist who has been reporting on space activities for more than 50 years. Currently writing as Space.com's Space Insider Columnist among his other projects, Leonard has authored numerous books on space exploration, Mars missions and more, with his latest being "Moon Rush: The New Space Race" published in 2019 by National Geographic. He also wrote "Mars: Our Future on the Red Planet" released in 2016 by National Geographic. Leonard  has served as a correspondent for SpaceNews, Scientific American and Aerospace America for the AIAA. He has received many awards, including the first Ordway Award for Sustained Excellence in Spaceflight History in 2015 at the AAS Wernher von Braun Memorial Symposium. You can find out Leonard's latest project at his website and on Twitter.