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Helping New Space Industry Lift Off

Published by Sigurd De Keyser on Mon Sep 27, 2004 5:04 am
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By Mark Stencel
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 27, 2004; Page A17

FAA Official Balances Oversight, Booster Roles for Manned Commercial Flights

Flying the first commercial test pilot into space three months ago was more than a feat of entrepreneurial engineering. SpaceShipOne’s maiden flight just beyond the edge of the atmosphere also required a little bureaucratic ingenuity from Patricia Grace Smith and her staff at the Federal Aviation Administration.

The privately financed rocket plane, which makes its second scheduled test flight to space Wednesday, flies under the regulatory wing of Smith’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Since 1984, the office has been in charge of licensing dozens of U.S. commercial space launches. Until recently, all those launches involved the kind of expendable, unmanned rockets that have carried satellites and other payloads on one-way trips to space for nearly 50 years.

That changed with a series of experimental flights that culminated in June when test pilot Michael W. Melvill fired SpaceShipOne’s rocket high above California’s Mojave Desert and soared 62 miles above Earth to the fringes of suborbital space.

Watching the rocket’s trail from a private airport runway far below was an “unparalleled thrill,” recalled Smith, 55, an associate administrator at the FAA who has worked on commercial space flight issues for 10 years.

Smith’s office provided the regulatory go-ahead for the flight, and Smith awarded the first commercial astronaut wings to Melvill at a ceremony after the pilot landed the stubby, white spacecraft.

SpaceShipOne’s designer, aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, had much experience certifying experimental aircraft with the FAA. But licensing a reusable commercial spacecraft designed to carry human payloads raised complicated legal and regulatory questions for the FAA and Rutan’s Mojave company, Scaled Composites LLC:

Was SpaceShipOne a launch vehicle or a new kind of airplane, or both? Who was in charge of its safety and flight path? Could the vehicle legally carry a pilot? Passengers? And who was responsible for damage back on Earth if anything went terribly wrong?

Colleagues at the FAA credit Smith’s team for collaborating with other staffs at the agency to get needed safety, environmental and air traffic approval for the builders of the winged rocket. To allow a pilot to fly on SpaceShipOne, for instance, Smith’s office designated him “part of the flight safety system for the vehicle.”

“It takes a great deal of work,” said Nicholas A. Sabatini, associate administrator for regulation and certification, whose responsibilities include regulating experimental aircraft. “You have cultures within the organization, so you have to think outside the box.”

FAA Administrator Marion C. Blakey also praised the Office of Commercial Space Transportation for its efforts to cultivate a “good working relationship with members of industry.”

“It’s been challenging because the industry is wary of any regulation,” Blakey said.

Some leaders in the emerging business of manned space flight with reusable craft have publicly grumbled about the government’s slow-moving regulatory process. But entrepreneurs at many fledgling space ventures also said Smith and her staff have been sensitive to their needs.

Smith “has been a real cheerleader,” said Peter H. Diamandis, chairman and founder of the X Prize Foundation, which is offering $10 million to the first group of private space investors who successfully mount back-to-back human space flights with the same suborbital spacecraft.

Rutan’s SpaceShipOne is the leading contender for the prize, which Diamandis conceived as a way to jump-start an affordable commercial space tourism industry. But Diamandis warned that the business of affordable commercial space flight could be stranded on the launchpad if it is regulated like other, more mature transportation industries.

“If this industry is over-regulated, it could be killed in its infancy, and Patti is well aware of that. . . . Don’t regulate a moped the way you regulate a Mack truck,” Diamandis said, noting that the more than two dozen rocket designs offered by barnstorming, international X Prize competitors have significantly less power and range than most conventional commercial rockets.

Smith said her office takes pride in “being efficient regulators” and working with industry “to create a result we both can live with.” But she also acknowledged the tension between her role as an industry booster and a government regulator.

“Part of our responsibility is to enforce . . . regulations in the interest of the public safety,” Smith said. “We believe that we regulate in a way that is not unduly burdensome to the industry.”

Smith is not a newcomer to the space business. She has worked in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation since 1994. The office was formed during the Reagan administration to oversee commercial satellite launchers. Since then, it has licensed more than 165 launches, including three SpaceShipOne test flights.

Smith’s staff of about 60 has expertise ranging from economics to engineering. One of the office’s aerospace engineers, Paul D. Wilde, an expert on reentry issues, also served on the staff of the independent panel that investigated the space shuttle Columbia accident.

Smith came to the business of regulating rockets after working for 14 years at the Federal Communications Commission, where her interest in space was sparked in part by work that involved issues related to communications satellites.

“I was always curious about how they got up there,” Smith said.

Now Smith oversees the industry that puts them there — almost always atop conventional unmanned rockets.

Legislation passed by the House in March would give the FAA more specific guidance on regulating a space tourism business, including questions of liability and requirements for passengers. Smith said lawmakers need to address those issues before the FAA can allow spacecraft crews to routinely ferry people and payloads to space and back — a concept that Smith said fits her own vision for the future of commercial space transportation.

“I truly, truly see space as transportation . . . not unlike aviation, not unlike rail, not unlike transit — an intermodal, interconnected system that creates benefits for the nation,” Smith said.

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