28 November, 2006

Remember SpaceShipOne? The Burt Rutan-designed sub-orbital space vehicle that won the Ansari X Prize two years ago? If you don't, please read up. If you do, then you may also recall that Sir Richard Branson and his Virgin Galactic company have contracted with Mr. Rutan's company, Scaled Composites, to create SpaceShipTwo for regularly-scheduled paid-passenger sub-orbital spaceflights.

Oops... The government has to have its say...

This article dates to late April of this year, and the problem of gaining permission for the overseas technology transfers is now moot. I guess apocalyptic visions of British Redcoats dropping from sub-orbit to re-colonize North America failed to win out... The issues Mr. Rutan brings up about the FAA regulatory process, however, apparently remains in place.

From the SpaceDaily.com article:

"With the SpaceShipOne flights behind him and the challenge of building, testing and flying commercial space vessels ahead, Rutan did not mince words when speaking of the difficulties he encountered dealing with the branch of the Federal Aviation Administration assigned to oversee commercial space issues.

"The process ... just about ruined my program," he said, referring his experiences with the office of the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, which bases its requirements on assessing and minimizing risk to the non-involved public.

"It resulted in cost overruns, increased the risk for my test pilots, did not reduce the risk to the non-involved public, destroyed our 'always question, never defend' safety policy, and removed our opportunities to seek new innovative safety solutions," Rutan said.

Because the agency's policies stemmed from its oversight of unmanned-rocket launches and an emphasis on assessing the likelihood and affect of launch failures, the process is ill-suited to reducing the probability of failure in passenger ships, which is how airline regulations are based, he said.

"The regulatory process was grossly misapplied for our research tests and, worse yet, is likely to be misapplied for the regulation of the future commercial spaceliners," Rutan said.

He noted ensuring public safety can be built into the process so it minimizes vehicle development costs."

And here, the real crux of the matter...

"This is a subject that FAA seems to be afraid of, Rutan said. "They seem to be happy that they're not required ... to certify these ships. I think it really comes down to the problem that they flat don't have the people that are qualified to do it." (emphasis added)

I believe that last sentence really says it all. The FAA has had regulatory authority over commercial spaceflight since 1995, but passenger-oriented commercial spaceflight is, as of yet, essentially a developing fetus. Naturally, no one in the FAA has the first-hand experience or qualifications to come up with procedures that those actually developing the concept in the real world will be satisfied with. As a practical matter, it's likely that there is currently no one more qualified than Mr. Rutan and company to decide on commercial passenger spaceflight safety issues...

Another angleis that this can also be construed as old-fashioned buearacratic ass-covering.

"They seem to be happy that they're not required ... to certify these ships."

Well, yeah. They've entered the realm of the proactive rather than reactive on a new function. If commercial passenger spaceflight takes off in the near-term (highly likely), and becomes big and frequent within a short period thereafter (also likely), it becomes inevitable that eventually, accidents will happen and people will die... In spectacular fashion, due to the nature and new-ness of the event. The inevitable tragedies have the potential to become a media sensation, and a political storm in D.C. when scapegoats are searched for. The people who wrote the "failed" or "inadequate" safety regs will certainly come into the crosshairs, years from now, when they're approaching the zeniths of their Beltway careers. Not the sort of attention one would want, regardless of the ultimate outcome.

But, the bright side for now is that Virgin Galactic is still scheduled to take off some time in 2008. Starting saving your $200,000 for a ticket.

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