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House aviation subcommittee shows renewed interest in commercial spaceflight

George Nield

SEATTLE — A hearing by the House aviation subcommittee on commercial space transportation issues, the first of its kind in seven years, showed both its renewed interest in the subject and a willingness to reexamine some key policy issues.

The June 22 hearing by the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was largely an informational hearing about the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s regulation of commercial space transportation and some key current issues, such as the FAA’s desire to take on a larger role in space traffic management and to provide oversight of “non-traditional” commercial space activities, such as missions to the moon and asteroids.

However, some members were interested in revisiting older issues. Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), the ranking member of the full committee, raised questions about the dual mandate of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) to both regulate the industry and to promote it, which the rest of the FAA lacks.

“There’s an inherent conflict between promotion and regulation and oversight of safety,” he said, suggesting the role of promotion of the industry would be better handled by the Department of Commerce. “I think we need to look very carefully at that.”

George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, defended his office’s dual roles. “This dual mission is an important part of our culture,” he said. “Although the FAA has licensed or permitted 290 launches to date, there have never been any fatalities, serious injuries or significant property damage to the general public.”

Asked later in the hearing by DeFazio about why the office should have that dual mandate, Nield emphasized that he believed promoting the commercial spaceflight industry didn’t impact its ability to regulate it. “It is not favoring one company over another, it is not cutting corners, it is not compromising when we come to public safety,” he said.

Gerald Dillingham, director of civil aviation issues at the Government Accountability Office, noted that the GAO has previously suggested FAA work with Commerce on delineating roles regarding regulation and promotion. “There is either inherent or potential conflict with the dual mandate of promotion and safety oversight,” he said. “That is something that still needs to be looked at.”

Industry representatives, however, had fewer concerns about any potential conflict. “Its promotion mandate is not in conflict with its regulatory component, but is actually complementary,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, in an interview after he testified at the hearing. Its work promoting the industry, he argued, means it wants the industry to succeed, which requires it to also be safe.

DeFazio and other committee members also raised questions about topics that had been issues in the past but appeared to be settled by recent legislation. Rep. John J. Duncan, Jr. (R-Tenn.) questioned the system of government indemnification of third-party damages from commercial launches, where the government pays for any damages that exceed a maximum probable loss level that launch providers must insure against.

“Why is it still necessary that we place this potential liability on the taxpayers?” he asked after stating that the indemnification regime dates back to the late 1980s.

Nield responded that other nations have indemnification systems similar to, or even more beneficial to industry than, the U.S. regime. That system was extended most recently in the Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act in 2015, to September 2025. The law also required the FAA to reexamine its approach to calculating the maximum probable loss figures.

Other members raised questions about the so-called “learning period” that limits the ability of the FAA to issue regulations for the safety of spaceflight participants in commercial vehicles. Last year’s commercial space act extended the learning period through September 2023. “Do you think this moratorium needs to be revisited, and should it end earlier or be extended based on what’s actually happening today?” asked Rep. André Carson (D-Ind.)

“I think it’s important to make the system that we’re in right now permanent,” responded Taber MacCallum, chief technology officer of World View Enterprises, which is developing a high-altitude balloon system that will be licensed by AST. He suggested that more stringent regulations be added later for “common carriage” spaceflight applications, like point-to-point transportation.

The hearing was the first time the aviation subcommittee has taken up commercial spaceflight since 2009. Issues regarding AST have been addressed more frequently by the space subcommittee of the House Science Committee. However, aviation subcommittee members said they planned to pay closer attention to the field in the future.

“It’s been seven years since this particular committee or subcommittee has had a hearing on commercial space,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), the ranking member of the aviation subcommittee, recommending the subcommittee revisit the topic early next year. “I don’t want it to be seven years before we do this again.”

Gold said he doesn’t anticipate any conflicts between the aviation and space subcommittees in the House regarding jurisdiction of commercial space transportation, welcoming the additional attention it receives. “The more engagement, the better,” he said.

SpaceNews.com

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House aviation subcommittee shows renewed interest in commercial spaceflight

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