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Is Washington ready for space tourism to take off?


Together, the milestones are expected to build consumer confidence and propel the development of new spacecraft to support a global transportation system via low earth orbit.

But many space policy experts and members of congressional oversight committees fear the government is not prepared for this – especially the Federal Aviation Administration office which is responsible for regulating the new industry, but is widely seen as overburdened. working and understaffed.

Whether it is ensuring public safety, managing the growth of space traffic, or mitigating environmental risks, there is no framework to regulate private space travel. And while many experts say the industry is still too new to work out the details, they argue that federal agencies are already way behind schedule.

“There are a lot of open questions,” said Laura Seward Forczyk, founder of Astralytical, an aerospace consulting firm. “There will come a time when the US government, the FAA, decides it needs to regulate this sector in a manner similar to the airline industry. It won’t be perfectly safe initially – no one expects it to be – but it has to become more secure as it becomes less experimental.

“All of these flights are still labeled as test flights,” she added. “These passengers will at some point expect a level of security that is not currently achievable. When it becomes achievable, I don’t know.

Keeping passengers alive is a major concern, both in the spacecraft and in commercial aircraft sharing part of the same airspace. In the months and years to come, as space ports and space flights carrying tourists or cargo become more frequent, they will need designated lanes for take-off and landing.

The FAA has the authority to regulate commercial spacecraft through its Office of Commercial Space Transportation. But there is now a moratorium on industry regulation until 2023 to encourage innovation.

“The FAA had rightly given prominence to these initial commercial space operations,” Representative Peter DeFazio, an Oregon Democrat who chairs the House Aviation Subcommittee, said in a statement. recent surveillance hearing on the role of the FAA in space.

But he believes the time is fast approaching to take seriously what those regulations should look like. “I am seriously concerned that parts of the industry are talking about a further extension of the moratorium,” DeFazio said.

Still, some leading advocates of trade efforts in the space fear that if regulators act too quickly, they could cripple the industry as it improves its designs.

“The fear is that if we write regulations based on old vehicles that weren’t very safe, then there is a potential implication here that those vehicles won’t be safe either because the regulations aren’t safe either. “said Karina Drees, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry association representing space companies. “We are still very much in data collection mode. “

“We want regulation,” she added in an interview. “We just want safe regulation. The vehicles have just been put online. How does anyone in government know how to regulate these vehicles when they are new? “

Drees, who was previously CEO and Managing Director of Mojave Air & Space Port in California, argues that the analogy to the early days of commercial air travel, which was regulated by the Civil Aeronautics Board founded in 1938, is not yet complete. absolutely correct.

Space flights are still in their infancy, she said, noting that less than 10 commercial space flights in the past 17 years have transported people. This means that there is ample time to get the right trade space regulations.

“I have the impression that by comparison, we are moving at a faster pace than commercial aviation, because it took decades to iron out many of these regulations at the time,” he said. she declared.

But as manned and unmanned space flights increase, it will be necessary to coordinate them with the air traffic control system.

“There is work to be done,” said Dan Dumbacher, former senior NASA official and executive director of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics. “We all know that every time you launch on the central Florida coast, the launch windows affect commercial air travel up and down the east coast.

Accepting the return of spacecraft to Earth, including reusable rockets, poses its own set of challenges.

“There is an interface out there that is coming that we need to be prepared for as launch rates start to increase,” Dunbacher added. “The different locations of these launches – same return, landing of boosters on barges or ashore – also affect the air traffic management system, so we need to be able to sort out and determine what these issues are and how we resolve them. . . What technologies are needed? What research is needed to resolve these issues? “

DeFazio, the chairman of the aviation panel, says the need to coordinate with the flying public is also important if space tourism remains the domain of only a select group of wealthy individuals for the foreseeable future.

He wants to avoid a scenario in which air passengers are informed: “I’m sorry that your [airline] the flight is going to be delayed, or you’re going to be an hour and a half late and miss your connection because a millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.

“It’s not fair and I want to see that it doesn’t happen,” he said.

Lawmakers have said they want the FAA to speed up a program called “Space Data Integrator,” designed to minimize disruption from commercial space activity.

The FAA space office, which is responsible for granting launch licenses for commercial space flights, is understaffed to deal with growing regulatory challenges, according to Drees, head of the Federation of Commercial Space Flights.

“There is so much talk about the need for more regulation, but our regulator is a team of 100 people,” she said. “They haven’t grown up, they haven’t been able to keep pace with the industry, they don’t have the in-house expertise to be able to regulate what the industry is doing, and yet less than keeping track of the number of launches they need to license. “

Drees said the FAA already has a huge space workload. “They do environmental reviews to deal with requests for space ports and launch companies,” she said. “They have a pretty heavy workload on top of being under pressure to write regulations.”

The environmental implications of private spaceflight present one of the most complex challenges, including the potential to contribute to climate change.

“Commercial space launchers emit an astonishing amount of carbon dioxide,” DeFazio said. “More carbon dioxide in minutes than an average car after two centuries of driving.”

For now, the industry and its boosters are in a new phase which, just a few years ago, was the vision of a few billionaires.

Bezos and Branson flights “will boost consumer confidence in the commercial spaceflight industry’s highly anticipated promise to provide access to space for all,” said Namira Salim, one of the founders of Virgin Galactic and who is about to travel in a future mission.

She thinks they will also push the government more to take action to help the industry move on a sustainable path.

“This turns out to be a healthy space race, which does not compromise on safety so that a commercially viable tourism product can be delivered,” she said. “The two companies’ successful space flights will also help establish operational and safety protocols for commercial operators and regulators. “

But the challenge will be to sort out the many details, big and small, argues Seward Forczyk, the space industry consultant.

“Do these passengers have to wear pressure suits? ” she asked. “For now, the spaceflight providers, at least Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, have decided no. Maybe that will change. There is no standardization with regard to seat belt harnesses. Nothing is standardized in the industry.

But that will have to change soon. “At the moment, it doesn’t necessarily have to be a standard set,” she added. “But as the industry matures, we will have to adopt some kind of standards and regulations. If we want spaceflight to be like airflight, we will have to develop the corresponding safety culture. “

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