On May 24, 2023, Beyond Earth Institute (BE) (https://beyondearth.org) hosted a webinar on Human Spaceflight Safety, in Concept & Practice: Which Way Forward
Decades in the making, the commercial human spaceflight sector is slowly but surely getting traction. Blue Origin has had several successful suborbital flights with paying participants, and Virgin Galactic has scheduled their first operational flight in the near term. SpaceX is flying ambitious, fully private orbital missions as well as delivering NASA and international crew members to and from the International Space Station. Both Boeing and Sierra Nevada are developing their own crewed systems.
BE felt the time was right to convene a panel of experts in space policy, regulation, and law – who have firsthand experience with human spaceflight safety policies and regulations from their work in industry and on Capitol Hill. You can find a list of speakers and watch a recording of the session here:
The purpose was to take a nuanced at this multi-faceted topic and ask a series of thought-provoking questions such as: How should we approach the notion of human spaceflight safety and “risk?” Should the status quo restriction on regulation of vehicle design, manufacturing, and operation continue? What is the role of industry safety standards, and should the government seek authority to enforce them? Are unrestricted innovation and competition the best path to safety, or should the federal government be granted authority and responsibility for the safety of commercial human spaceflight?
What is, or should be, the appropriate role of a regulator and regulations? How important, if at all, are enforced (as opposed to voluntary) industry safety standards for the future of humans living and working in space?
When Congress passed the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, it recognized that commercial human spaceflight was an experimental and risky activity. Congress also required operators, however, to inform customers of their safety records so people could make an informed choice based on levels of risk. And for some number of years, the Secretary of Transportation could only regulate operators in response to a demonstrated problem (in a flight accident or safety incident).
That spaceflight regulatory “learning period,” restricting the FAA from issuing operating requirements and design regulations for human occupant safety, is now scheduled to expire in the fall of this year.
During the discussion, we heard from proponents of the learning period who maintain that the human spaceflight industry is still too immature, technologies and designs still too iterative, and best practices still in rapid flux to be subject to prospective safety regulations. Other panelists, including an analyst who co-authored a recent RAND report, asserted that, despite a limited body of reference knowledge and nascent industry consensus standards, the time is right to enable unrestricted regulation. It was also asserted that it is highly probable that an accident will occur and that it better for the government and industry to be proactive in developing a regulatory regime versus doing so in a climate of crisis. Still others believe that this is a false choice, arguing that allowing more regulation will not replace or strengthen the informed consent regime, nor is regulatory authority necessary to take other steps to promote safety.
Throughout the discussion, panelists addressed the implications of ending the learning period, strengthening, or replacing the informed consent regime, and the impacts these and other options may have on the future of commercial human spaceflight.