Industry Committee to Start Work on Human Spaceflight Safety Standards

An industry group is starting a process that could eventually lead to voluntary safety standards for commercial spacecraft like SpaceShipTwo. (Image credit: Virgin Galactic)

WASHINGTON — With the Federal Aviation Administration restricted from developing safety regulations for people flying on commercial human spacecraft, an industry standards organization is moving ahead with plans to establish a committee to develop a voluntary set of standards.

At a meeting here Oct. 24, ASTM International, an organization founded in 1898 that develops voluntary consensus standards for a wide range of industries, agreed to move ahead with the creation of a committee that will work on creating such standards for commercial launch vehicles, spacecraft and spaceports.

"It will allow industry to use a 110-year-old process to produce consensus standards," said Oscar Garcia, chairman of the standards working group of the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), during a meeting of that working group here Oct. 25. The new committee, he said, "will develop standards and related roadmaps to address activities such as human spaceflight occupant safety standards, spaceports and space traffic management."

A total of 53 people representing 29 companies and organizations attended that kickoff meeting, said Christine DeJong, director of business development for ASTM International, at the COMSTAC working group meeting. The committee won't be formally created until after the completion an internal ASTM review process.

While the new committee has a broad scope, one initial area of emphasis is expected to be in the area of standards involving commercial human spaceflight. "One purpose of the committee is to create human spaceflight safety standards," she said.

The use of an industry group to develop safety standards came about because of restrictions placed on the FAA regarding its ability to develop safety regulations for spaceflight participants on commercial vehicles. Legislation passed in 2004 limited the FAA from passing such regulations except in the case of accidents that killed or injured people on the vehicle, or posed a high risk of doing so.

That provision, enacted shortly after Scaled Composites' SpaceShipOne suborbital vehicle won the $10 million Ansari X Prize, was to expire in 2012 so that the FAA could then enact broader safety regulations based on the experience collected from commercial spaceflight during that so-called eight-year "learning period." But with the overall industry suffering delays, Congress has extended the learning period's expiration date several times.

Most recently, the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act, signed into law in November 2015, extended the learning period until October 2023. It also directed the FAA, through organizations like COMSTAC, to facilitate the development of voluntary industry consensus standards.

The committee hasn't set a schedule for the development of those standards, and with both orbital and suborbital commercial human spacecraft still under development, one COMSTAC member cautioned not to expect much from this effort for the foreseeable future.

"I think this is a very helpful development, but I think expectations are unrealistically high for what we're going to get out of it," said Jeff Greason, a co-founder and former president of XCOR Aerospace who is now the chief executive of Agile Aero, during the meeting of the full COMSTAC Oct. 26.

He said the standards committee could be an "incredibly valuable resource," but did not expect it to develop standards any time soon. "Don't expect that, suddenly, things are going to start to happen."

This story was provided by SpaceNews, dedicated to covering all aspects of the space industry.

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Jeff Foust
SpaceNews Senior Staff Writer

Jeff Foust is a Senior Staff Writer at SpaceNews, a space industry news magazine and website, where he writes about space policy, commercial spaceflight and other aerospace industry topics. Jeff has a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and earned a bachelor's degree in geophysics and planetary science from the California Institute of Technology. You can see Jeff's latest projects by following him on Twitter.