NASA & FAA Agree on Private Space Taxi Safety Rules

An artist's concept of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane docking with the International Space Station.
An artist's concept of Sierra Nevada's Dream Chaser space plane docking with the International Space Station. (Image credit: Sierra Nevada)

NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) will collaborate and share responsibilities for regulating future commercial spaceflights to and from the International Space Station, representatives from both agencies announced today (June 18).

NASA administrator Charles Bolden and FAA acting administrator Michael Huerta announced today they have signed an agreement to establish licensing standards and policy for commercial missions to the space station. As the nascent private space industry continues to grow, NASA and the FAA will coordinate safety standards for government and nongovernment trips to low-Earth orbit.

"I'm really pleased to join FAA administrator Huerta to announce the two agencies have signed a Memorandum of Understanding for how we're going to regulate safe commercial transport of government and nongovernment crews," Bolden told reporters in a news briefing.

The agreement helps establish ground rules for U.S. commercial spaceflights to ensure the safety of onboard crews and the public.

Boeing's CST-100 space capsule falls to Earth in a successful parachute drop test held April 3, 2012, at the Delamar Dry Lake Bed near Alamo, Nev. (Image credit: Boeing )

"The Obama administration recognizes the scientific, technological and economic benefits of maintaining the United States' leadership in space travel and exploration," Huerta said. "This agreement between the FAA and NASA continues and advances those vital national interests." [Now Boarding: The Top 10 Private Spaceships]

As part of the understanding, the FAA will distribute licenses to commercial companies provided that safety standards for their vehicle's launch and re-entry are met, Huerta explained. For flights taken by American astronauts, NASA will be responsible for overseeing the safety of the mission and crew.

"This allows both agencies to incorporate experience and lessons learned over the years," Bolden said.

The signed Memorandum of Understanding represents an important step in establishing a working legislative framework for the commercial spaceflight industry.

"This important agreement between the FAA and NASA will advance our shared goals in commercial space travel," U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement. "Working together, we will assure clear, consistent standards for the industry."

Several private companies are building new spaceships to carry NASA astronauts and other paying passengers to the International Space Station and other planned destinations in low-Earth orbit. NASA's Commercial Crew Program aims to foster the development of these vehicles through funding awards and space act agreements.

The companies selected to receive funds in the third and final round of NASA's Commercial Crew Program are expected to be announced in mid-July, Bolden said.

The FAA will be responsible for regulating and licensing all American private companies and individuals involved in commercial space transportation to maintain a safe environment on the ground and in the national airspace during launch and re-entry, Huerta said.

According to agency officials, the FAA has licensed 207 successful launches to date, including two nonorbital commercial human spaceflights in 2004 and the recent launch of SpaceX's unmanned Dragon capsule to the International Space Station.

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Denise Chow
NBC News science writer

Denise Chow is a former staff writer who then worked as assistant managing editor at Live Science before moving to NBC News as a science reporter, where she focuses on general science and climate change. She spent two years with, writing about rocket launches and covering NASA's final three space shuttle missions, before joining the Live Science team in 2013. A Canadian transplant, Denise has a bachelor's degree from the University of Toronto, and a master's degree in journalism from New York University. At NBC News, Denise covers general science and climate change.