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Space Travel Gets Closer Look

Officials Discuss Rules of the ‘Road’

Washington — It’s a story almost as old as humanity: Braving unknown dangers, a team of explorers settles a wild frontier, and then — almost as quickly — bureaucrats tie it up with red tape.

This time, the frontier is outer space. And the regulators are from the Federal Aviation Administration, which licenses commercial-rocket launches in addition to monitoring the airlines.

The FAA has so far been constrained by one major loophole: Once a spacecraft reaches orbit, it’s largely free of regulation — a libertarian’s final refuge.

But that could change soon.

This week, at a congressional hearing and an industry conference in Washington, FAA officials and space attorneys began seriously discussing rules of the road for outer space, for such things as mining rights and safety practices.

Although there have been some broad guidelines — the Outer Space Treaty of 1967, for example, prohibits nations from claiming the moon — specific space regulations have been few and far between. In part that’s because few countries — let alone private companies — have had the ability to put people or products into orbit.

But the commercial space industry has burgeoned in recent years.

In 2012, the California company SpaceX became the first commercial-rocket company to deliver cargo to the International Space Station. And space tourism companies, such as Virgin Galactic and XCOR Aerospace, are preparing to fly passengers to suborbital space, perhaps this year.

Those efforts have led Congress, the administration and industry to begin talking about how to ensure that people and property stay safe in space.

These proposals run the gamut, such as figuring out how to restrict the amount of dangerous “space junk” shed by spacecraft and finding a way to coordinate traffic in Earth’s orbit.

“As the prospects for a greater number of commercial-transportation vehicles in space increase, it is time to consider closing the current regulatory and safety gap between launch and re-entry,” said George Nield, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, in remarks this week before Congress.

Nield was speaking to House members as part of a hearing on regulating the space industry.

Of particular interest is one law — set to expire next year — that largely bars the FAA from restricting commercial efforts to launch humans into space.

The intent of that measure, passed in 2004, was to ensure that “the FAA would not overregulate the industry before it had the opportunity to grow,” according to congressional documents.

Although no passengers have yet flown into orbit on a commercial rocket, the question of whether to extend the FAA moratorium remains open.

U.S. Rep. Steven Palazzo, R-Miss., argued Tuesday that this time has not yet come.

“If the FAA begins trampling on these companies with regulations based on speculation instead of data, we may never see the promise of commercial human spaceflight realized,” said Palazzo, chairman of the House space subcommittee.

But some in the space industry said a few more rules would be a good thing.

“Regulation is inevitable. And the question is who should be doing the regulating,” said Mike Gold, a top executive with Bigelow Aerospace of Nevada, which builds inflatable space habitats.

With the FAA sidelined in part by the congressional restriction, the task of crafting regulations for space travel increasingly could fall to NASA - which is not a good thing, said Gold, who leads an FAA advisory panel.

“NASA is not a regulatory agency and has no desire to become one. The FAA, by contrast, is a regulatory agency and would be best-suited,” he said.