Spaceflight Operators Seek Learning Period Extension, More Flight Testing

SpaceX CEO Elon Musk shared this image of Starship to his X account last month, as the company continues to seek a second try at flight testing its two-stage super heavy lift launch vehicle. (Image: SpaceX)

Commercial spaceflight operations need an extension of the Federal Aviation Administration's moratorium on new regulations for space travel that expires at the beginning of 2024, according to testimony from three of the world's largest space travel companies given during an Oct. 18 congressional hearing .

Privately manufactured and operated spacecraft are not currently subject to official federal regulations under the passage of the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Agreements Act that established the current "learning period" that the industry operates under. Lawmakers have extended the moratorium three times, including the current extension that runs through Jan. 1, 2024, although industry executives say that the period should be extended further.

Spaceflight operations such as the suborbital flights conducted by Virgin Galactic or the failed test flights involving SpaceX's Starship mega rocket and Blue Origin's New Shepard over the last year are permitted to fly under the learning period, while being subject to launch and re-entry licenses granted by the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation  (AST).

William Gerstenmaier, Vice President, Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, told lawmakers that while his company is seeking an extension of the learning period, the existing process for obtaining launch and re-entry licenses they're is delaying the testing and development of spacecraft capable of landing humans on the moon — one of the future goals for Starship as part of its selection for NASA's Artemis program . The SpaceX executive seeks changes to AST’s current approach to managing launch and re-entry activities.

"While AST has achieved admirable success ensuring public safety, it is reaching a breaking point as it relates to timely license issuance, even for ‘routine’ missions on mature launch vehicle systems like the Falcon 9,” Gerstenmaier said. "With respect to innovative systems in development, including those that are critical to key national objectives like NASA’s Artemis program, AST licensing is now the critical watch item that is at risk of slowing the pace of innovation and program execution. For example, the Starship Flight 2 launch vehicle has been ready to fly since mid-September in order to test critical systems needed to meet NASA objectives, and is simply awaiting AST licensing approval."

Gerstenmaier is also critical of staffing issues at AST, noting that the licensing division is often constrained and is only able to review launch and re-entry license material sequentially, rather than in parallel. AST's inefficiency has persisted despite the agency's Part 450  reform effort that updated the licensing process in September 2020. According to Gerstenmaier, this update has seen AST's ability to process licenses decline rather than improve under Part 450.

"Even if AST were adequately processing applications for launches and reentries in a timely fashion, it is unprepared to implement human spaceflight regulations today or in the next several years," he said.

An image of astronauts onboard Virgin Galactic's VSS Unity "Galactic 04" mission, one of five spaceflights the company has performed over a five-month period this year. (Image: Virgin Galactic)

SpaceX is targeting 100 space launches this year — with plans to increase that to 144 in 2024 — and has performed 75 so far, including the crash of Starship in April. In September, the FAA closed its investigation into the Starship crash and issued a final report  requiring SpaceX to redesign vehicle hardware and launch pad, as well as address all "safety, environmental and other applicable regulatory requirements prior to the next Starship launch."

Starship's next launch is also delayed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's evaluation of the environmental impacts of the April crash and future Starship test flights. Gerstenmaier told lawmakers that active flight testing is the only way commercial human spaceflight could become a reality in the near future.

"Starship’s test flight to some, may have looked like a failure. It wasn’t a failure. It was a huge learning experience for us. We gained more data and more knowledge that helps us advance than we could’ve through a thousand of years of analysis and mathematical studies and tests," he said.

Executives representing Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic agreed with Gerstenmaier that changes are needed to the current launch and re-entry licensing processes, as well as an extension to the learning period. The three executives did not mention how long they believe the learning period should be extended, only that the commercial spaceflight industry — especially the human passenger carrying segment — is not yet mature enough to even provide enough flight data and evidence for establishing a framework for regulations that officially govern spaceflight operations.

On the same day as the hearing, Virgin Galactic announced  the flight window for its Galactic 05 mission will open Nov. 2, 2023. Galactic 05 will be the company's sixth spaceflight this year and tenth to date.

The company's suborbital spaceflight system includes two piloted vehicles, Mothership and Spaceship. Mothership is a four-engine, dual-fuselage jet aircraft capable of high-altitude, heavy-lift missions, including but not limited to fulfilling its role in carrying Spaceship to altitude. VG’s spaceship is an air-launched, suborbital spaceplane designed to transport people and payloads safely and routinely to space and back. So far, the VSS Unity has flown nine private astronaut and research space flights. Sirisha Bandla Vice President of Government Affairs and Research Operations, Virgin Galactic, participated in one of those space flights and also advocated for an extension of the learning period during the hearing.

"Looking at the indicators FAA AST identified themselves, industry is not yet mature enough for effective and efficient human occupant safety regulations – but VG believes that it is the right time for government and industry discussions on future safety frameworks," Bandla said. "VG, itself, has a robust framework for human occupant safety within our spaceflight system, built on industry and government best practices and the experience of our team. We look forward to participating and continuing to share best practices in the proper cross-cutting forum."

In September, the FAA officially closed its investigation into the September 2022 crash of Blue Origin's New Shepard rocket, requiring the company to complete 21 corrective actions including the re-design of the engine and nozzle components before it can resume launch operations.

Phil Joyce, Senior Vice President of the New Shepard Business Unit at Blue Origin, agreed with Gerstenmaier that a more streamlined processes for authorizing test flights is necessary to provide the type of flight data that can validate an official regulatory framework moving forward.

"The three US commercial human spaceflight launch providers operating today have three fundamentally different architectures: suborbital and orbital; piloted, autonomous, and hybrid; vertical and horizontal takeoff and landing," Joyce said. "There is no one-size-fits-all criteria for safety in a market as diverse as human spaceflight. A prospective regulatory framework needs to be results-oriented rather than prescriptive because the means of compliance to meet the requirement are likely to vary by mission profile and design choices."