Commercial Space Launches:

FAA Needs Continued Planning and Monitoring to Oversee the Safety of the Emerging Space Tourism Industry

GAO-07-16: Published: Oct 20, 2006. Publicly Released: Oct 25, 2006.

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In 2004, the successful launches of SpaceShipOne raised the possibility of an emerging U.S. commercial space tourism industry that would make human space travel available to the public. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which has responsibility for safety and industry promotion, licenses operations of commercial space launches and launch sites. To allow the industry to grow, Congress prohibited FAA from regulating crew and passenger safety before 2012, except in response to high-risk events. GAO evaluated FAA's (1) safety oversight of commercial space launches, (2) response to emerging issues, and (3) challenges in regulating and promoting space tourism and responding to competitive issues affecting the industry. GAO reviewed FAA's applicable safety oversight processes and interviewed federal and industry officials.

Several measures indicate that FAA has provided a reasonable level of safety oversight for commercial launches. For example, none of the 179 commercial launches that FAA licensed over the past 17 years resulted in fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage. However, FAA shared safety oversight with the Department of Defense (DOD) for most of these launches because they took place at federal launch sites operated by DOD. In addition, FAA's licensing activities incorporate a system safety process, which GAO recognizes as effective in identifying and mitigating risks. GAO's analysis of FAA records indicates that the agency is appropriately applying management controls in its licensing activities, thereby helping to ensure that the licensees meet FAA's safety requirements. In response to emerging issues in the commercial space launch industry, such as the potential development of space tourism, FAA has developed safety regulations and training for agency employees. The industry has raised concerns about the costs of complying with regulations and about the flexibility of the regulations to accommodate launch differences. However, FAA believes it has minimized compliance costs by basing its regulations on common safety standards and has allowed for flexibility by taking a case-by-case approach to licensing and by providing waivers in certain circumstances. FAA faces several challenges and competitive issues in regulating and promoting space tourism. For example, FAA expects to need more experienced staff for safety oversight as new technologies for space tourism evolve, but has not estimated its future resource needs. Other challenges for FAA include determining the specific circumstances under which it would regulate space flight crew and passenger safety before 2012 and balancing its responsibilities for safety and promotion to avoid conflicts. Recognizing the potential conflict in the oversight of commercial space launches, Congress required the Department of Transportation (DOT) to commission a report by December 2008 on several issues, including whether the promotion of human space flight should be separate from the regulation of such activity. In addition, U.S. commercial space launch industry representatives said that they face competitive issues concerning high launch costs and export controls that can affect their ability to sell services overseas. The federal government has provided support to the industry to help lower launch costs.

Recommendations for Executive Action

  1. Status: Closed - Implemented

    Comments: To prepare for a possible major expansion in its safety oversight responsibilities resulting from the emergence of the space tourism industry and spaceports, we recommended that FAA assess the level of expertise and resources that will be needed to oversee the safety of the space tourism industry and the new spaceports under various scenarios and timetables. We also recommended that FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) develop a formal process for consulting with the Office of Aviation Safety about licensing reusable launch vehicles. In response, AST enhanced its resource planning process by assessing data on future launch activity, resulting in requests for additional safety staff for fiscal years 2008 and 2009; developed a qualifications matrix for AST safety inspectors and similar positions; and developed an agreement between AST and FAA's Office of Aviation Safety, defining their roles and responsibilities regarding the review of hybrid aircraft/launch vehicles.

    Recommendation: To prepare for a possible major expansion in its safety oversight responsibilities resulting from the emergence of the space tourism industry and spaceports, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to, as part of its strategic planning effort, assess the level of expertise and resources that will be needed to oversee the safety of the space tourism industry and the new spaceports under various scenarios and timetables. In addition, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation should develop a formal process for consulting with the Office of Aviation Safety about licensing reusable launch vehicles. The process should include the criteria under which the consultation takes place.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  2. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA indicated in August 2009 that in light of its observation of safety risk management, safety assurance, and a general safety culture in the commercial space industry as well as the preparations for safety approval of training processes for both crews and participants, the agency found no compelling reason to issue guidelines on circumstances under which it would regulate crew and flight participant safety before 2012.

    Recommendation: To prepare for a possible major expansion in its safety oversight responsibilities resulting from the emergence of the space tourism industry and spaceports, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to identify and continually monitor space tourism industry safety indicators that might trigger the need to regulate crew and flight participant safety before 2012, to allow the agency to be proactive about safety, rather than responding only after a fatality or serious incident occurs. As part of this effort, FAA should develop and issue guidance on the circumstances under which it would regulate crew and flight participant safety before 2012.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

  3. Status: Closed - Not Implemented

    Comments: FAA does not intend to develop a memorandum of understanding with Commerce.

    Recommendation: To prepare for a possible major expansion in its safety oversight responsibilities resulting from the emergence of the space tourism industry and spaceports, the Secretary of Transportation should direct the FAA Administrator to, as long as FAA has a promotional role, work with the Department of Commerce to develop a memorandum of understanding that clearly delineates the two agencies' respective promotional roles in line with their statutory obligations and larger agency missions. This memorandum of understanding should reflect Commerce's role as an advocate of the industry, with the objective of increasing U.S. competitiveness and FAA's focus on providing a safe environment in which the emerging space tourism sector could operate.

    Agency Affected: Department of Transportation

 

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