"Commercial Space Transportation & the Future of Aviation"
Michael Huerta, Washington, DC
May 15, 2013

Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC)


Thank you, George (Nield).  It is a pleasure to be here to speak at today’s event.

Commercial space transportation is an important, and growing, part of our aviation system.  And, the innovation seen in this industry today parallels the challenges, imagination and courage of the early pioneers of flight over 100 years ago.   

Space transportation has come a long way since John F. Kennedy first noted more than 50 years ago that the United States was not built by those “who waited and rested and wished to look behind them.  This country was conquered by those who moved forward, and so will space.”  Exploration and travel into space has certainly come a long way since those early days.         

The partnership we have – government and industry working together – plays a significant part in this forward motion.  This cooperation allows us to hear one another’s viewpoints, but also to outline any challenges we may foresee.  Putting these issues out in the open helps to move us forward. 

And, the impressive development in space transportation is due in large part to the efforts of many in this room. 
I would like to take a moment to recognize a few who have made a big difference.  

First, I would like to thank former COMSTAC Chair, Will Trafton.  As many of you know, Will served as COMSTAC chair from 2007 until last year.  As chair, he pushed the committee forward as a relevant and important voice for industry on how to regulate commercial space transportation.  For your leadership and service, we would like to thank you, Will. 

I would also like to present our thanks to former COMSTAC Vice Chair, Chris Kunstadter Chris served as the Vice Chair from 2009 until last year, and continues to serve as Chairman of the Business/Legal Working Group.  He has provided outstanding leadership for the committee.  Thank you, Chris, for your excellent guidance and advice. 

Today, the growth in commercial space transportation is more and more noticeable to the American public.  Last year, SpaceX completed its Commercial Orbital Transportation Services demonstration mission by launching and berthing its cargo capsule to the International Space Station.  And then it safely returned with cargo intact back to Earth.  This was the first time that private industry resupplied the Space Station.  Since that time, SpaceX has completed two more cargo missions.    

Orbital Sciences also demonstrated its launch capabilities last month for the same service, taking off from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport on Wallops Island, Virginia.  

The innovations don’t stop there.  SpaceX has already started testing a new design to create the world’s first fully reusable launch vehicle.  In Texas, SpaceX has been operating under an experimental permit from the FAA to use the Grasshopper rocket to conduct a launch and then return to a vertical position on the launch pad.  These innovations might further reduce the cost of launches and create new commercial space industry opportunities.

The goal of lowering the cost for access to space is noble, not only for business, but also for science and the accessibility of space to more people.  Virgin Galactic has begun powered test flights of its Space Ship Two design, in an effort to begin flying tourists from Spaceport America in New Mexico.

As with space itself, the possibilities are endless, and they are not limited to a few locations or a handful of companies.  The FAA has licensed spaceports in Mojave, California, in Kodiak, Alaska, and in several other locations.  There is also interest in developing other launch facilities in Florida, Texas, and Colorado, to name just a few.

XCOR Aerospace has begun advertising the capability of its Lynx spacecraft to take people and payloads on a half-hour suborbital flight.  Boeing, Sierra Nevada, and SpaceX continue to work on their own designs for a commercial crew vehicle to take astronauts to the International Space Station.  And Bigelow Aerospace is working toward giving spaceflight participants new destinations in orbit.  These are all impressive developments.

While we have seen many developments in space transportation, a challenging road remains ahead for the FAA.  We all know that we are in a very tough fiscal situation.  Congress has given us the ability to move funds around to end furloughs of FAA employees, but we still have to meet significant mandated sequester cuts.  We have instituted a hiring freeze and significantly cut travel, and we continue to reduce contract expenses.

The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation continues to experience a significant increase in the number of requests and applications for new licenses or permits.  However, we have notified all of our stakeholders that actions could be delayed due to the effects of the sequester.  Despite these major challenges, we remain focused on our mission at hand, which is safety. 

Our activity shows our commitment to space transportation.  There have been a total of over 200 commercial launches licensed since 1989 with no loss of life or serious injury or property damage to the public.  The level of launch activity is increasing rapidly.  In fiscal year 2012, the total number of licensed and permitted launches was three, and in fiscal year 2013, there have already been 13 licensed and permitted launches.

As this business continues to grow, we face important decisions.  One of our main tasks will be the continued safe integration of commercial space operations into our airspace.  Usable airspace is a limited resource, and safety considerations require the careful coordination of aviation and space activity.

We will continue to work with the broader community on commercial space transportation activity in our airspace. And, we’ll continue to work with other nations on the potential hazards of space launches and reentries.  We will also continue to manage the hazards to aircraft from reentering space debris.

We will accomplish these goals by not only working with industry partners, but also with other government agencies. |
This past year, the FAA signed a Memorandum of Understanding with NASA to cover the future licensing of commercial crew vehicles to the International Space Station.  Under the terms of the MOU, the FAA will license the launch for the safety of the public, while NASA will ensure human safety on board and mission assurance.

The FAA itself cannot propose any new regulations on human spaceflight safety until 2015.  However, thanks to you here at COMSTAC, we continue to prepare for the future together in multiple ways.  And, you continue to inform us of potential issues that we will need to address.  

In December, Congress passed a one year extension to the public-private risk sharing regime that is generally referred to as space launch “indemnification.”  In a license, the FAA requires that a launch provider purchase insurance to cover the maximum probable loss that could result from a launch failure.  In the event that third party losses exceed that, the government would seek to appropriate funds for the payment of these claims. 

Although there have been no claims involving a request for Congressionally appropriated funds, the potential liability exposure of launch operators far exceeds the available private insurance coverage.    

We understand that a one-year extension is challenging for industry, as it does not provide the needed long-term certainty gained from an extension of three, four, or more years.  We continue to be engaged in conversations with Congress regarding the length of this indemnity clause. 

Working together, we will continue to address matters of concern.  This open dialogue serves us well.  When industry and government join together at events like today’s meeting, we are able to move forward.  

Watching the space transportation industry grow is truly remarkable.  And, you here in this room are at the forefront of this industry’s success.  We ultimately have the same goal – the safety of flight and the successful integration of innovative space transportation into our airspace. 

I appreciate you inviting me to be here today, and I’d be happy to take any questions.

Thank you.

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