November 05, 2003

Mr. Hudson Goes to Washington

Gary Hudson has provided testimony to the U.S. House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics for the 5
November 2003 hearing on H.R. 3245 - The Commercial Space Act of 2003.

I have only just begun to review and digest this, so I reserve the right to update or post more later.

Hudson, who developed the concept of the Phoenix SSTO vehicle and who was a driving force behind the DC-X and was the CEO of Rotary Rocket, describes the regulatory policy hurdles faced by our nascent commercial launch industry:

"However, the desire to fulfill international treaty obligations and to protect public safety has led us to a cul-de-sac in the road to a hopeful future. We have stumbled in our ability to promote the space flight industry, imposing an unclear, overly bureaucratic regulatory environment that is stif[l]ing innovation,
progress and commerce. We need to rethink our approach from first principles; that is the purpose of this white paper. "

He first recaps the 20-year old debate regarding licensing of commercial space activities:

"The origin of the debate goes back two decades. At that time, private rocketeers faced a number of Federal Agencies each who claimed they were in charge. These ranged from the FAA, which had the legitimate authority under the existing law, to the Department of State, which wanted to regulate rocket launches under the absurd notion that they were "exports." The professed goal of the sponsors of the first Commercial Space Act was to put an end to this problem and provide a "one-stop-shop" for launch approvals. I supported that unreservedly. "

But I lost the battle to limit the scope of the Act. Instead, a completely new entity was created: the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, as well as a completely new concept: Federal launch licenses. At the time, some of us complained that the new entity wasn't needed, that the existing law was adequate with minor revisions, and that the new OCST would not be able to figure out what to do about piloted reusable rockets. Our concerns were brushed
aside. They have now emerged as crucial to the future survival of an industry in crisis."

He criticizes the launch license process as overly burdensome:

"AST has grown increasingly bureaucratic. Launch Licenses are now Major Federal Actions. In spite of my warnings and counsel of the past five years, we have now reached a crisis. Experimental flight-testing of suborbital passenger vehicles has begun. AST is not up to the challenge of this development."

He then recommends the sure-to-be-controversial disestablishment of the AST:

"Therefore, I recommend the disestablishment of AST, and the elimination of the need for US persons to seek launch licenses. In its place, I propose that we return to the pre-1984 law governed by Federal Aviation Regulations. This will be sufficient to protect the safety of third parties and to fulfill international obligations. Piloted rocket aircraft of a variety of types will then be regulated by the FAA under experimental type certificates. Several rocket aircraft already have been issued such certificates."

But he attempts to address the expected objections before they are made:

"The strongest objection to such an approach comes from colleagues who wish to begin offering immediate passenger rides who fear the cost of FAA certification. I understand their position, and sympathize. And I believe that a barnstorming era for space transportation is desperately needed. But we can reach that result by other forthright action.

"Current FAA rules generally prohibit revenue flying of experimental aircraft. I propose we simply change the rule. Congress can permit certain experimental aircraft defined as space vehicles to operate under a limited exemption for a period of time -- 20 years. Coincidentally this is the same period from the Wright Brothers first flight to the establishment of the first Civil Aeronautics Authority in 1926. Some have asked how we protect the passengers on these flights? HR 3245 correctly supplies the solution by defining "spaceflight participants" as someone who would give their informed consent to fly."

Burt Rutan's first instinct was also to treat the White Knight/SpaceShipOne as an experimental aircraft to avoid applying for a federal launch license. Rand Simberg was quite critical of this approach, even citing a description of Rutan as a "bull in a china shop."

Based on the above, I obviously need to give this some more thought. I also need to read through the testimony of the other witnesses. You should do the same.

More later.

Posted by JohnL at November 5, 2003 11:25 PM
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