The US Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is charged with registering and regulating commercial spaceflight. When it comes to commercial crew ventures, such as the plethora of suborbital tourism companies that have sprung up across the US, AST has been charged with a hands-off role. Taking a watch and learn approach, AST is merely responsible for ensuring no danger to the public will occur from such commercial launches. The tourists themselves simply need to be adequately informed of the risks and consent to take them. The US legislature recently extended this observer role until 2015, when it is thought suborbital tourism will be up and running.
AST, however, is taking a preemptive approach. Concerned about a steep learning curve when it comes to what consitutes safety and effective regulation for spaceflight tourism, the organiation has arranged to institute monthly discussions with some of the key players in the field. “We’re going to be setting up monthly public telephone calls to ask [industry] about certain topics,” said Pam Melroy, former NASA astronaut and senior AST technical adviser. “We do plan on having these once a month for the foreseeable future. We really want maximum participation, and we want technical people to really help us understand what the thinking is out there.”
The industry seems to be supportive of the plan. “We enthusiastically welcome the dialogue that AST has initiated with the commercial spaceflight industry about a framework for discussing safety issues and sharing safety learning with and among industry,” said Commercial Spaceflight Federation President Michael López-Alegría, also a former astronaut. “We look forward to an active partnership to rapidly improve safety as we gain experience while avoiding imprudent regulation that could slow innovation and harm safety.”
By law, AST is not permitted to indicate what kind of regulation they are looking to institute, which puts something of a damper on discussions with industry. But the agency can glean important technical knowledge of the new and varied commercial systems and their approaches to safety that could pave the way for effective future regulation.