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Friday, October 27, 2006

FAA Needs Continued Planning To Ensure Safety of Space Tourism

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) needs to plan further to manage the emerging space tourism industry, according to a new report by a government watchdog agency.

The FAA faces several challenges and competitive issues in regulating and promoting space tourism, says a new report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), the nonpartisan investigative arm of Congress.

For example, FAA expects to need more experienced staff for safety oversight as new technologies for space tourism evolve, but has not estimated its future resource needs, GAO says. Other challenges for FAA include determining the specific circumstances under which it would regulate space flight crew and passenger safety before 2012 and balancing its responsibilities for safety and promotion to avoid conflicts, the agency adds.

Recognizing the potential conflict in the oversight of commercial space launches, Congress required the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) to commission a report by December 2008 on several issues, including whether the promotion of human space flight should be separate from the regulation of such activity, GAO says.

If DOT’s commissioned report on dual safety and promotion roles does not fully address the potential for a conflict of interest, GAO suggests that Congress revisit FAA’s promotional role and decide whether it should be eliminated. GAO recommends that FAA assess its future safety oversight resource needs and identify the circumstances that would trigger passenger safety regulation before 2012.

The successful launches of SpaceShipOne in 2004 raised the possibility of an emerging U.S. commercial space tourism industry that would make human space travel available to the public. The FAA, which has responsibility for safety and industry promotion, licenses operations of commercial space launches and launch sites. To allow the industry to grow, Congress prohibited FAA from regulating crew and passenger safety before 2012, except in response to high-risk events.

Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin group of companies and SpaceShipOne pioneer Burt Rutan announced last year an agreement to form a new aerospace production company to build a fleet of commercial sub-orbital spaceships and launch aircraft. Virgin Galactic is Branson's commercial space tourism venture.


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