Interview with Andrew Nelson
From mining asteroids, to clearing up space junk, to building space ports and developing cutting edge reusable space vehicles that can launch tourists or science payloads into orbit, the potential for commercial space activity is growing rapidly.
But the current regulatory environment is in a game of catch-up with technological developments in the industry, with laws and regulations governing low orbit space flight borrowed from other industries or devised during the Cold War.
Space Trade caught up with Andrew Nelson, the Chief Operating Officer of XCOR Aerospace, the private rocket engine and commercial spaceflight development company, at the Space Commerce Summit in London to ask him about the regulatory environment and what can be done to make it better suited to reflect the growing space economy.
What’s the matter with the current regulatory environment?
The current regulatory environment needs freshening up in light of an evolving space economy that is transitioning from a traditionally government-led enterprise to a more robust and entrepreneurial commercial framework.
The current international regulatory environment for space is principally focused on expendable launchers and satellites and is quite high level. There are broad sweeping principles established by several United Nations Space Treaties such as “a launching state bears unlimited liability for space objects it launches” or “a state may not claim sovereignty over a heavenly body.”
As the international rules are promulgated to the national level, they are codified to that nation’s specific needs while adhering to the broader international mandates. However, many countries do not have a space regulatory environment at all, or it is very rudimentary.
As new commercial space ventures start to take off, nations are encountering the need to understand the specific legal and regulatory frameworks that will best suit their needs and desires on how they wish these new high technology and exciting business areas need to grow and flourish, (or not grow as the case may be).
So where’s the confusion?
One of the dilemmas nations are facing is that some of the new space ventures, and in particular the ventures most likely to come to their shores first like a commercial suborbital space vehicles, look and feel a lot like an aviation system. So they first tend to say “well let’s just use the aviation regulations” but that does not work.
Although a winged reusable space plane may look like the Lamborghini of business transport, it is not an aircraft. Sure it has wings, landing gear, and some common avionics, but it is very different in its principle propulsion, fuel storage, feed systems, electrical systems, skin, airframe design / construction principles, thermal protection systems, aerodynamics, life support systems and operational profile. It’s not an aircraft in the traditional sense, it is a winged rocket that may use some limited cone of airspace, but it is really transiting the lower atmosphere and controlled airspace for 1-2 minutes on its way up, and 10-15 minutes on its glide home.
Clearly, a vehicle of this nature must integrate and operate safely in the aviation environment, being sure to not impact uninvolved third parties, but it should not be regulated as an aircraft, since such regulations are based on a mature industry with over 110 years of experience gained through analysis, trial and error, and now has well established best practices.
Because aviation systems are based on such a rich century of “prior art” (i.e., the extensive set of protocols, procedures, technology and practices that makes up modern aviation today) you can “certificate” aircraft. Space systems have only flown about 540 people to space since Yuri Gagarin flew first in 1961. There is no way that we can guarantee the same level of safety in a space system as an aviation system, we don’t know enough, which means we need a more flexible regulatory regime that recognizes the inherent risks of spaceflight. That is why we need something different than aircraft certification, until we learn enough to transition to a more mature regulatory framework.
So what needs to be done?
An enhanced space regulatory regime is needed to reflect these new space ventures, and it needs to evolve appropriately. Sure, there will be areas where aviation best practices are suitable, and without much modification to space, e.g., ground handling procedures, airspace management solutions, emergency flight procedures in a declared emergency, ground fuel storage systems, aerodrome regulations, etc. But there is very little that is backward compatible from space planes to traditional subsonic aircraft that today’s aviation regulators work with on a daily basis.
And even though there is a 60+ year history of spaceflight around the world and 540 people have gone to space (so maybe 200+ crewed flights) there is not a statistically significant sample size that covers the various and disparate vehicle types that have flown these flights. The manned space systems flown thus far have been significantly different with little heritage shared amongst them (e.g., there is little in common between an Apollo or Soyuz capsule versus the Space Shuttle). Unlike the billions of hours and flights the aviation community has experienced, and learned from the last 110 years, the space community is still in the first baby steps of its existence, even though we’ve been flying spacecraft for over 60 years. continued on page 11…