"Continual Improvement of FAA Commercial Space Transportation Safety Regulations"
Dr. George C. Nield, Cape Town, South Africa
October 13, 2011

62nd International Astronautical Congress

It is indeed a pleasure to kick off this session on Commercial Spaceflight Safety. The topic for my remarks today concerns the "Continual Improvement of FAA Commercial Space Transportation Safety Regulations." There are two specific elements of that topic that provide the foundation for my comments: "Continual Improvement" and "Safety." These two elements also constitute the foundation for what we do in the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. In addition, they form the basis of our communications with the international community as we attempt to share the FAA’s regulatory experiences with countries around the world.

Allow me to provide some context for this discussion. Once the Wright Brothers showed us how to fly, humans took to the air. We loved the freedom, but we eventually had to accept the fact that planes did not always stay airborne in the way that they were intended. Aviation industry leaders believed the airplane would not be able to reach its full commercial potential without federal action to maintain and improve safety standards. At their urging, the U.S. Congress passed the Air Commerce Act in 1926. This landmark legislation charged the Secretary of Commerce with fostering air commerce, issuing and enforcing air traffic rules, licensing pilots, certifying aircraft, establishing airways, and operating and maintaining aids to air navigation.

In 1934, the Department of Commerce renamed the Aeronautics Branch the Bureau of Air Commerce to reflect the growing importance of aviation to the nation. In one of its first acts, the Bureau encouraged a group of airlines to establish the very first air traffic control centers at Newark, New Jersey; Cleveland, Ohio; and Chicago, Illinois to provide en route air traffic control. In 1936, the Bureau took over these centers. Early en route controllers tracked the position of planes using maps and blackboards and little boat-shaped weights that came to be called "shrimp boats." They had no direct radio link with aircraft, but used telephones to stay in touch with airline dispatchers, airway radio operators, and airport traffic controllers. Although en route air traffic control became a federal responsibility, local government authorities continued to operate airport towers. While the Department of Commerce worked to improve aviation safety, a number of high profile accidents called the department's oversight responsibilities into question. A 1931 crash that killed all on board, including popular University of Notre Dame football coach Knute Rockne, elicited public calls for greater federal oversight of aviation safety. Four years later, a DC-2 crash killed U.S. Senator Bronson Cutting of New Mexico. To ensure a federal focus on aviation safety, President Franklin Roosevelt signed the Civil Aeronautics Act in 1938. The legislation established the independent Civil Aeronautics Authority (CAA), with a three-member Air Safety Board that would conduct accident investigations and recommend ways of preventing accidents.

Over the next 20 years, the CAA extended its air traffic control system to include operation of airport towers, and Air Traffic Control became a permanent federal responsibility at most airports. Then on June 30, 1956, a Trans World Airlines Super Constellation and a United Air Lines DC-7 collided over the Grand Canyon in Arizona, killing all 128 occupants of the two airplanes. The collision occurred while the aircraft were flying under visual flight rules in relatively uncongested airspace. The accident dramatized the fact that, even though U.S. air traffic had more than doubled since the end of World War II, little had been done to mitigate the risk of midair collisions. On August 23, 1958, the President signed the Federal Aviation Act, which transferred the Civil Aeronautics Authority's functions to a new independent agency, the Federal Aviation Agency (FAA), with responsibility for civil aviation safety.

Why am I relating this history? To demonstrate that too often in aviation history, it has been a tragedy that spurs the government to take action. If you’ve noticed, there is often at least a two-year delay from the time of a tragedy until some kind of legislation is enacted. We want to change this pattern as we work with commercial space transportation. I am telling this story also to make the point that my office prefers a proactive course. Safety is our first concern rather than an afterthought. Continuous improvement in our safety regulations is a critical component of our mission.

How do we do this?

We began in 1984, when the Commercial Space Launch Act established the Office of Commercial Space Transportation and placed it under the Department of Transportation. In 1995, we moved to the FAA. Our stated mission is to ensure protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during commercial launch or re-entry activities and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation.

Our enabling legislation recognizes that “space transportation is inherently risky, and the future of the commercial human space flight industry will depend on its ability to continually improve its safety performance.” The industry continues to expand, with new capabilities being developed to enter new markets – suborbital tourism, on-orbit operations, re-entry, cargo missions to the International Space Station, and privately owned space stations.

The commercial space transportation industry is developing a wide range of vehicles that can launch from various locations. Some vehicles are orbital, and some are suborbital. Since it is challenging to write regulations where “one size fits all,” the FAA approach is to allow for flexibility. The FAA works closely with license applicants to make sure industry complies with the intent of the regulations while still allowing new approaches. Wherever possible, our regulations are performance-based. This allows an operator to demonstrate a vehicle’s safety in a variety of different ways, rather than having to meet a prescriptive design.

Right now, the industry's safety record is outstanding. We have licensed over 200 commercial launches with no fatalities, serious injuries, or significant property damage. And we want to keep it that way. The challenge is to make sure that our regulations will continue to have a positive impact on safety, but without being unnecessarily burdensome to the industry.

We continually examine our existing regulations to determine where they can be improved. Sometimes we need to clarify the regulatory language. Sometimes new technology becomes available, and we need to modify a rule to ensure that the new technology can be used safely. Sometimes, as happened in 2004, Congress directs us to draft a regulation to allow new or expanded commercial space launch operations. Once the FAA issues regulations, the work doesn’t stop. We take other measures to carry out our continuous improvement program. For example:

  • We issue Advisory Circulars and miscellaneous guidance documents.
  • We meet and work with industry during the licensing process.
  • As we identify issues, we take steps to modify or otherwise address things not covered by the original regulations.
  • We collaborate with external organizations, such as NASA, the Air Force, the FCC, and NOAA to learn from their experiences.
  • We monitor and track safety indicators to identify precursors and trends.
  • And we examine the need for additional authority (on-orbit authority, for example).

Our work with license applicants is definitely a collaborative process. We start meeting with applicants very early to get to know their vehicle and to help them understand what we will need to see in order to issue a license. The communication continues throughout the application and evaluation process. In general, operators are required to comply with what is written in the regulations, but we are willing to consider a vehicle’s unique characteristics in determining whether the intent of the requirement has been satisfied in some other way.

We also seek advice from industry when we are considering new regulations. One way we are able to get feedback is through our Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which meets twice a year. The members provide recommendations on a wide variety of issues affecting commercial space transportation, including the need for new or revised regulations.

In our continuing effort to improve our regulations and our approach to safety, we have also taken a look at our own organization. Over the last year, we have reorganized the divisions in our office. We established a new Safety Inspection Division and transformed two previously existing divisions into a Regulations and Analysis Division and a Licensing and Evaluation Division. This change was consistent with our philosophy that our office has to develop regulations, apply them through the licensing and permitting process, and then monitor compliance. We’ve also established an office for Strategic Planning, a Chief Engineer, and a Director of External Relations. Last year we also expanded our geographic footprint to include field offices in Mojave, California; and at the NASA Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas.

Another facet of our focus on safety is the Commercial Space Transportation Lessons Learned System (CSTLLS). This online application is intended to help us to learn from our past experiences and to share that knowledge with others. We now have a central repository for information exchange that is maintained by our office and populated by members of the commercial space transportation industry. Industry members can submit lessons learned in a standardized format for easy inclusion in the database.

To facilitate the exchange of information, the website also contains links to various other sites, including NASA’s Lessons Learned Information System. Our goal is to allow members of the commercial space industry and the interested public to access and submit lessons learned relating to commercial space transportation activities and operations. In this way, we are actively seeking to absorb the lessons that industry is learning every day, and we encourage industry members to share their experiences so that all can benefit.

Finally, we recently established a Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. The goal for this Center is to develop and maintain a partnership of academia, industry, and government that will perform research in areas of interest to the FAA and the commercial space transportation industry as a whole. We are specifically calling for research in four major commercial space transportation areas: operations and space traffic management, launch vehicle systems, human space flight, and space commerce. All of these areas ultimately focus on safety.

The history of aviation is chock full of both innovation and daring. When humans decide to push the envelope of what is possible, risk is always present. Unfortunately, tragic events often follow. We have learned from the days when “shrimp boats” marked a plane’s location. We have also learned that it is important not to wait for the tragedy before trying to mitigate risks. We need to be open to new ways of doing business, but we can't afford to ignore the lessons of the past. With your help, we are doing what we can to continually increase the level of safety. We're fortunate that our industry currently has an outstanding safety record, and we want to do everything we can to keep it that way. We look forward to working with the international community as we take on that challenging task together.