Space Access Society update and call to action on HR 3752
By Michael Mealling
(See our Update #102, at http://www.space-access.org/updates/sau102, for some background on Federal regulation of the promising new US private passenger-carrying spaceflight industry.)
A law usefully clarifying current Federal commercial launch regulations as they affect carrying commercial passengers, HR 3752, The Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004, has been working its way through the Congress since last winter. In brief, HR 3752 alters existing law to both allow and encourage the Federal Aviation Administration's Advanced Space Transportation division (FAA AST) to license low-cost reusable commercial passenger-carrying space vehicles on an informed-consent-to-risk basis that gives the new industry a chance to grow, rather than strangling it in the cradle with unrealistically rigid standards that the new technology cannot yet support.
HR 3752 passed the House by a vote of 402-1 this summer, in a form that wasn't perfect (it created considerable uncertainty via a too-narrow definition of “suborbital rocket” that excluded some serious current design approaches) but that with a bit of common sense from the FAA might have worked reasonably well.
The bill then went to the Senate Commerce Committee, where it ran into its first major snag - a Senator from a state hosting a reusable rocket company whose design fell outside the “suborbital rocket” definition put a hold on the bill. This part of the story has a happy ending; the FAA division that had previously refused to budge on that overly narrow definition eventually budged, and a new expanded definition was written into the Senate version of HR 3752.
By then though two more months had passed, the elections were close at hand, and the practical options for passing HR 3752 had narrowed down to Senate Commerce Committee staffers working out an acceptable version with their House counterparts, then both Senate and House passing identical new versions under fast-track “unanimous consent” rules. This should have been no problem; we're told the House was (and is) happy with the revised more-inclusive definition of a suborbital rocket.
But someone, for whatever reason, threw a spanner in the works, altering another section of the bill that defined allowable levels of risk in a manner that would have killed the budding new industry stone dead. Briefly, HR 3752 said that risk to uninvolved members of the public had to be kept many-nines low, risk to crewmembers was a matter for FAA AST to work out with individual companies as part of the licensing process, while passengers simply had to be fully informed of the risks involved. The change was a simple one - FAA AST was to become responsible for ensuring the same many-nines level of safety for crew and passengers of the new vehicles as that required for uninvolved bystanders.
This may even have been well-intentioned; it could have sounded reasonable to someone not well-informed about the field. But the practical effect would be to require astronomical numbers of successful test flights of any new vehicle to statistically prove a many-nines reliability level, before either passengers or crew would be allowed on board. The relatively immature state of reusable rocket technology aside, no unpiloted or remote-piloted vehicle has ever come close to that reliability level. This change was an industry-killer.
The bill as fatally altered was set to move out of the Senate Commerce Committee for quick unanimous-consent passage by the Senate at the start of October. Only another hold by a Senator on the Committee stopped this at the last second, at which point the various parties agreed to sit down and work out differences over the election break, and if a version could be agreed on, pass it by unanimous consent in the final post-election session of this Congress. That's where things stand now.
What To Do
If you're a US citizen from one of the fifty states, you have two Senators. Fax or phone them in DC, or contact them back at home if the election campaign gives you a chance, and ask them to support a version of HR 3752 acceptable to the FAA and to the members of the new reusable rocket industry. If appropriate, go on to give a very brief supporting pitch, to the effect that this new industry has huge promise for the US, that it's appropriate to have the FAA stringently regulate risk to the general public, but that industry participants have to be able to take some risks in these early days in order to learn enough so that rockets can eventually be as safe as airplanes only got after generations of accumulated aviation experience.
For contact info, go to http://www.vote-smart.org and enter your nine-digit zip code (look at one of your bills) in the Find Your Representatives box. Scan down to your two Senators, click on their names, and you should have all the info you need.
If you fax, be polite, brief, and straightforward - keep it well under one page of reasonably large and readable print (a paragraph that's read is better than an essay that isn't), make your basic point at the start, support it briefly, then sign it with your name, city, and state and send it. (No paper-mail letters - word is those currently are backed up for months by security checks - and email comes in such volumes that individual emails carry almost zero weight. If you want to write, fax it.)
If you phone, ask to speak to whoever handles commercial space matters for your Senator, then when you're connected to that staffer (or more likely their voicemail) do the same as for a fax - make the basic support request, then if appropriate back it up briefly, thank them for their time, and ring off. If they have questions, do your best to answer them - briefly! - you might want to go over the background here and in SAU #102 before calling - then once done, thank them and ring off.
Don't assume because you didn't read this until a week or two after we sent it out that it's no longer urgent. The window for effective action on this will likely be open well into November. Stay tuned for further word; we'll report as soon as we know anything. Meanwhile - fax and call!
Space Access Society's sole purpose is to promote radical reductions in the cost of reaching space. You may redistribute this Update in any medium you choose, as long as you do it unedited in its entirety.You may reproduce sections of this Update beyond obvious “fair use” quotes if you credit the source and include a pointer to our website.
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