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Highlights

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.

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Recommendations

Recommendations for Executive Action

Agency Affected Recommendation Status
Department of Transportation 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.
Closed - Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Implemented.

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.
Department of Transportation 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.
Closed - Not Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Not Implemented.

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.
Department of Transportation 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.
Closed - Not Implemented

Recommendation status is Closed - Not Implemented.

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

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