Image: Suborbital space vehicle
Space Adventures
In this artist's conception, a suborbital space vehicle gives passengers a view of the curving Earth. Such flights are a couple of years away.
By Senior space writer
updated 5/25/2005 7:35:57 PM ET 2005-05-25T23:35:57

The Federal Aviation Administration is set to unveil a special permit aimed at helping the reusable suborbital rocket industry grow, while speeding up the development of passenger-carrying spaceships.

The “experimental-class” permit rules are to be open for public comment and discussed Thursdayt at an open meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, known as COMSTAC, at FAA Headquarters in Washington.

Spearheading the guidelines is the Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, the only space-related line of business within the FAA and under the wing of the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Last Dec. 23, President Bush signed into law the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004. That act advances the development of the emerging commercial spaceflight industry and makes the Transportation Department and the FAA responsible for regulating private human spaceflight.

The spaceflight law establishes, among other functions, an experimental permit regime for developmental reusable suborbital rockets. Before the law came into force, a license was the only mechanism available to the FAA to OK launch or re-entry. Under the new law, an experimental permit may be used.

Go out and fly
The guidelines fulfill the FAA’s requirement to provide direction on the implementation of the law with respect to experimental permits before issuing regulations. The guidelines are not binding, and until the regulations called for in the law are issued, the FAA will issue permits on a case-by-case basis.

“We’re hoping that this allows the reusable launch vehicle developers to build their vehicles and start flying without too much regulatory burden,” said Randy Repcheck, deputy manager in AST’s Systems Engineering and Training Division. He is the team leader on the experimental permit project.

“That’s the goal of these guidelines. We’re protecting public health and safety, but we’re trying to do so in a reduced manner so that reusable launch vehicle developers can go out and fly,” Repcheck told

Permit guidelines
In part, the FAA “Guidelines for Experimental Permits for Reusable Suborbital Rockets” apply to a person proposing to launch a reusable suborbital rocket or bring it back through re-entry solely for the following reasons:

  • Conducting research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques.
  • Showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license.
  • Crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or re-entry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued.

The wide-ranging guidelines to be issued allow the FAA to issue a permit to an applicant, under a set of terms, including:

  • The FAA has found that the applicant is capable of conducting its proposed launch or re-entry without jeopardizing public health and safety, the safety of property, or any national security or foreign policy interest of the United States.
  • The FAA issues an experimental permit authorizing an unlimited number of launches or re-entries for a particular suborbital rocket design.
  • One permit may be issued to an applicant to operate multiple vehicles of a particular reusable suborbital rocket design.
  • The FAA will identify in the experimental permit the type of changes that the “permittee” may make to the reusable suborbital rocket design without invalidating the permit.

The duration of an experimental permit will be one year from the date the permit is issued. A permittee may apply to renew its permit.

Moment in history
These guidelines, Repcheck said, permit the developers of reusable launch vehicles to collect data helpful in obtaining a license to start flying paying customers.

The experimental-class permits are to be available until the final regulations are issued.

That final rulemaking will, by law, be issued in late June 2006. There will be a notice of proposed rulemaking issued in December of this year, open to the public and industry for comment, Repcheck noted.

“The FAA and AST recognize that this is an emerging field, much like in the days of barnstorming,” said Hank Price, an FAA spokesman. “We need to have in mind ways to help this industry grow and to emerge … and that’s the balance we think we’re achieving here. Protecting the uninvolved public but also helping this industry to grow.”

Repcheck said there’s always a challenge in writing regulations and attempting to please different constituents, be they the public, industry or the safety community. “We’re trying to bridge all of those … bridging the airplane world with the rocket world,” he said.

“It seems to be a moment in history,” Repcheck concluded. “We certainly hope it is. That’s what we’re all hoping for here.”

Level of risk
Speaking prior to release of the guidelines, Patricia Grace Smith, AST’s associate administrator, said the intent of the rules is to give space launch vehicle developers the ability to experiment and test their vehicles in much the same way that airplane developers do.

“It will be a step beneath the full-fledged license and will allow the opportunity for the developers to take a level of risk,” Smith told last week. “We’re looking for ways to become more flexible in regulating the industry,” she explained.

Transportation Secretary Norman Mineta has also spotlighted the new guidelines, noting last week that they “will shorten the time and lessen the burden on launch vehicle developers, much like the aviation community has for experimental aircraft.”

While Mineta’s office has the responsibility to protect public safety, “our approach at the Department of Transportation is to allow this industry the freedom to develop, mindful that it is still in its infancy,” he said.

Passenger traffic
The new guidelines come at a time when the era of personal suborbital spaceflight is clearly taking shape. Flights to the edge of space by the piloted SpaceShipOne last year have prodded policymakers into action. Back-to-back flights of the craft led to grabbing the $10 million Ansari X Prize purse by Burt Rutan and his team at Scaled Composites in Mojave, Calif.

The privately financed suborbital hops prompted the creation of Virgin Galactic by adventurer and high-roller, Sir Richard Branson.

Virgin Galactic has cut a deal with the makers of SpaceShipOne to build a fleet of five passenger-hauling suborbital vehicles. Even before such a vehicle takes to the air, the space travel operator has more than 7,000 requests for initial reservations and about 1,500 down payments on the $200,000 per seat price tag.

AST’s Smith said last week at the 24th International Space Development Conference, sponsored by the National Space Society, that the suborbital space tourism business has the potential to handle 15,000 passengers and generate $700 million in revenues per year by 2021.

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