Loyola University Chicago School of Law, JD 2023
The recent successful trips to the edge of space by Jeff Bezos and Richard Branson are predicted to boost consumer confidence in the possibility of using commercial spaceflight as a global transportation system. However, as interest and involvement in commercial spaceflight grows, safety regulations are failing to keep up. The Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) has the authority to regulate spaceflight, but there is currently a moratorium on regulating the industry until 2023 to encourage innovation.
What is commercial spaceflight?
Commercial companies have always been involved in space travel. The first rocket that carried astronauts to the moon was built by a private company. However, commercial spaceflight in recent years has shifted from the typical model of private companies designing and building equipment for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), with NASA owning the end product, to those private companies building and retaining the designs to their products.
With this new ownership, companies like Elon Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin, and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic have taken steps to offer commercial spaceflight to private consumers, rather than just government, defense, or other private contracts.
What is being done to regulate the industry?
Right now, not much. There is currently no existing framework for regulating private space travel. All the existing commercial space flights have been classified as test flights, rather than a tested, regulated mode of travel in the way consumers think of airplane travel. Proponents of expanded commercial spaceflight generally agree that safety measures are needed, but fear that establishing regulations based on currently available data may actually harm rather than help the industry.
United States Representative Peter DeFazio, chair of the House Aviation Subcommittee, agrees that the FAA has been right to give the growing spaceflight industry leeway as it continues to innovate. However, he has also expressed some serious concerns that certain parts of the spaceflight industry have been pushing for an extension of the moratorium.
Those pushing for an extension include Karina Drees, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. Her concern, along with others industry leaders, is that establishing regulations too soon, based on current technology could lead to outdated and unsafe regulations.
It is clear there is work to be done regarding the safety and regulation of commercial spaceflight, but how to best achieve that regulation is unclear.
Why is there an increased push for safety regulations?
As mentioned, billionaires like Jeff Bezos, Richard Branson, and Elon Musk have all been making forays into commercial spaceflight and going beyond the standard commercial practices of providing rockets to deliver supplies to the space station or to launch satellites into space. Building on the success of the private-commercial partnerships, there has been an increase in human spaceflight. Richard Branson, founder of Virgin Galactic, was aboard a suborbital test flight on July 11, 2021. Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, booked a flight on one of Branson’s future test flights, although it’s unclear when that flight will lift off. Most recently, Jeff Bezos traveled to the edge of space aboard a rocket built by his company, Blue Origin.
The success these companies are having in sending humans to space (or the edge of it) is increasing consumer confidence in the potential viability of space travel as an effective means of transportation, even if it remains out of the price range for the ordinary individual for now.
SpaceX has ambitious plans for spaceflight, proposing “Earth to Earth” transportation, which would transform conventional long-distance travel. Under this model, SpaceX claims that most long-haul flight would be shortened drastically, being able to travel anywhere in the world in under an hour, with most trips taking less than thirty minutes.
Where are the safety concerns?
With the resurgence of interest in space, NASA is taking steps to return humans to the moon and beyond. The Artemis missions plan to send humans back to the moon to collect more data and perform research to form the foundation of future Mars missions.
To do so, in April 2020 NASA selected three U.S. companies to design and develop human landing systems (HLS) for the Artemis program: Blue Origin, Dynetics, and SpaceX. A year later, in April 2021, NASA selected SpaceX as the sole company to continue development of the HLS.
In response to NASA’s decision, Blue Origin filed a complaint in federal court alleging there were serious issues with NASA’s selection criteria, namely that NASA had improperly evaluated the proposals.
However, Blue Origin came under scrutiny for its own safety concerns after current and former employees released an open letter in which they accused Jeff Bezos of sacrificing safety in an effort to win the space race against other billionaires.
In the letter, many employees said they “wouldn’t feel safe flying in a Blue Origin vehicle,” believing the company failed to follow proper safety measures and pushed its employees to their limits.
One employee said that in 2018, one team had documented over 1,000 safety concerns with Blue Origin rockets, but was told she didn’t have a “high-enough risk tolerance” when she brought the employees’ concerns to leadership.
How will regulations alleviate these concerns?
With more structured regulations in place, situations like the safety violations alleged to have occurred at Blue Origin may be less likely. With the current moratorium on FAA regulation, companies in the industry have leeway to take risks in the name of innovation. However, regulations could provide a stricter framework that ensure safety is not compromised in the name of innovation. While some industry professionals are concerned that regulations based on existing data could lead to unsafe regulations, the FAA could set a tighter timeline to revisit regulations and update them accordingly as industry practices change in response to further research.
Ultimately, the industry needs regulation, especially in light of the growing interest in commercial spaceflight for human travel. Steps must be taken to ensure that human lives are not put at risk, and that safety is not compromised in pursuit of scientific innovation.