The fatal Virgin Galactic Ltd. crash may trigger the first federal regulation of an industry that has so far operated with almost no oversight on assumption that space travelers know the risks, similar to mountain climbers.
Congress has prohibited the U.S. government from imposing safety regulations over most aspects of commercial space exploration, even barring protections for passengers on the kind of for-pay flights that billionaire Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic envisions. All that changed when the company’s SpaceShipTwo broke into pieces on an Oct. 31 test flight.
The law says the Federal Aviation Administration may issue rules if a launch “resulted in a serious or fatal injury.” While it makes sense to give companies relatively free reign to test new technology, they should have to reach a higher standard once they begin carrying passengers, said Scott Pace, director of George Washington University’s Space Policy Institute.
“Zero or a completely hands-off approach is not acceptable, probably even to the companies,” Pace said in an interview.
The debate will be where to draw that line, he said.
The FAA’s current space flight regulations are focused on ensuring that uninvolved people on the ground and the environment aren’t harmed. They also include requirements that companies have adequate insurance and won’t threaten national security.
Unlike passengers on commercial airliners, there’s no standard for the safety of the paying customers on the spacecraft. They just must be notified of the risks of a flight and reentry into the atmosphere
The FAA didn’t immediately respond to e-mailed questions about whether it intends to write new requirements allowed under the law.
The goal of human space flight should be a safety record similar to that of commercial aviation, Kerri Cahoy, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology professor of aeronautics and astronautics, said in an interview. It may take many years to approach that, she said.
“The statistics aren’t with us,” Cahoy said.
NASA estimated the risks of losing a Space Shuttle when the fleet was still in operation was 1 in 90, or 1.1 percent.
Still, other unregulated human activities are riskier. A 2007 study found that the chances of dying after climbing Mount Everest were about one in 62, or 1.6 percent.
The FAA provided an outline of what human space flight regulations may look like in a report published Aug. 27 laying out “recommended practices” for such ventures. It includes dozens of safety recommendations, from having fire suppression systems to preventing electrical shocks.
The document stopped short of setting specific levels of acceptable risk because that “may inadvertently limit innovation.”
By comparison, in the more mature world of commercial aircraft, the FAA requires manufacturers such as Boeing Co. to prove that failures of systems that could take down a plane — such as a fractured wing — must be “extremely remote.”
That is defined as occurring no more than once in a billion flights, making it unlikely during the entire history of an aircraft model’s lifetime.
Virgin Galactic’s public affairs subcontractor, New York- based Edelman Public Relations, didn’t immediately respond to e- mailed requests for comment.
The FAA issued a permit May 23 to Scaled Composites LLC, which built the spaceship, for the Virgin Galactic test flight. It required a safety zone on the ground of 1,250 feet (380 meters) around SpaceShipTwo as it was being prepared for flight and limited the craft to restricted airspace where it wouldn’t fly near airplanes.
Representative Dana Rohrabacher, a California Republican who sponsored some of the legislation limiting FAA’s oversight, remains “a strong proponent of commercial space exploration and considers setbacks, however tragic, to be the constant companion of freedom and progress,” spokesman Ken Grubbs said in an e- mail.
SpaceShipTwo disintegrated above the California desert after a braking mechanism supposed to be used during re-entry deployed as the ship rocketed upward and reached the speed of sound, about 660 miles (1,060 kilometers) an hour at that altitude, according to the National Transportation Safety Board.
The safety board is looking at pilot training, company procedures and the design of the ship, the NTSB’s acting chairman, Christopher Hart, has said. As it does in all accidents, it’s also looking at the government’s safety oversight, he said. It may take as long as a year to determine the cause of the accident.
Even with the nation’s brightest engineers streaming to commercial space ventures, it will be many years before rockets and spacecraft become as reliable as aircraft, Cahoy said. Space travel uses extremely complex technology and it’s impossible to test it in flight very frequently because of the cost.
“You’re essentially fighting chaos here, that something could go wrong in a slightly different way each time,” she said.
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