One solution to regulating the safety of emerging commercial
suborbital vehicles, like XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx (above), is to
borrow an approach used by the maritime industry. (credit: XCOR)


Taking a page from maritime practice to self-regulate the commercial space industry

by Michael J. Listner, Tommaso Sgobba, and Christopher Kunstadter
Monday, March 4, 2013

Commercial suborbital launch providers are moving towards first flight, but the race is not only about which of the companies becomes the first to fly. The more critical race is against the regulatory clock, specifically, the end of the moratorium amended into the Commercial Space Launch Act that precludes the FAA from imposing new regulations on commercial space operators. The rationale behind the original moratorium and its subsequent extensions was to allow the industry to acquire experience so that future regulations could be fashioned based on experience. Since the extension from the original eight-year period, actual flight experience has been limited, and the end of the moratorium in October 2015 is fast approaching, unless Congress grants another extension.

Eventually, Congress will cease granting extensions and allow the FAA to institute new regulations as it sees fit. It’s not as ominous as it sounds, though, since the FAA is unlikely to impose a landslide of new regulations on the industry; however, should a serious accident occur once flights begin in earnest, additional regulation is a certainty. Regardless, the industry will see future regulation as it matures, but how that regulation comes about is still in question.

When considering regulation, the issue is not about making a commercial human spaceflight vehicle safe, since the launch providers already have an interest in building a safe vehicle. Moreover, engineers endeavour to build safe systems and to verify their safety. The real issue is defining an acceptable risk with currently available technology. Absolute safety does not exist, and what is considered safe is usually established by government standards and regulations. Without standards or regulations to reference, the designer and operator would have difficulty defending themselves in litigation.

Traditionally, safety-related standards and regulations are guided by recommendations issued following past serious incidents and accidents, and tend to be very detailed and prescriptive to prevent similar occurrences. Prescriptive standards require design features, as in electrical codes, which may be either specific designs solutions or impose design requirements as redundancies or the use of protection systems.

Read more: The Space Review: Taking a page from maritime practice to self-regulate the commercial space industry.

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