Space Industry Lobbies to Blast Off Ahead of FAA Regulation

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By Steff Thomas

May 20 — A commercial spaceflight trade organization and 22 of its executive and associate member organizations spent more than $2.19 million lobbying the federal government in the first quarter, with much of the focus on fending off Federal Aviation Administration safety regulations that the industry views as premature.

Companies affiliated with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation—including Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic, Amazon.com Inc. Chief Executive Jeff Bezos's Blue Origin LLC and Tesla Motors founder Elon Musk's SpaceX—and the lobbying firms they employed listed Federal Aviation Administration regulation of commercial spaceflight as an area of lobbying activity in disclosures filed with the Secretary of the Senate.

Blue Origin and SpaceX recently made significant breakthroughs by safely recovering booster rockets after successful launches, a development that promises to dramatically reduce the cost of commercial spaceflight. Virgin Galactic last month began testing its new SpaceShipTwo, an aircraft that the company hopes will be the first to carry tourists into space from New Mexico's Spaceport America.

Companies and organizations lobbying the federal government are required to report how much they spend overall, but they do not break down spending on specific lobbying areas. That makes it impossible to tell precisely how much was spent lobbying on commercial spaceflight issues. For example, Arizona State University is a Commercial Spaceflight Federation associate member and reported spending a total of $40,000 on lobbying activities in the first quarter. In addition to its lobbying on space issues, the university also lobbied on a wide range of other subjects, including agriculture, education, communications and health care.

Overall lobbying expenditures by the Commercial Flight Federation and its current executive and associate members increased by 6.7 percent in the first quarter compared with the same period last year, reflecting the fledgling industry's steady growth.

Two lobbyists working on commercial spaceflight issues told Bloomberg BNA that the industry's priority is to avoid “premature” regulation of spaceflight safety that could stifle growth in the burgeoning industry. The industry scored a major victory in November with enactment of the U.S. Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act (Pub. L. No. 114-90), which extends through 2023 a commercial space “learning period” that restricts the FAA from imposing safety regulations for humans flying on commercial spacecraft. The grace period had been set to expire this year.

“We need to get more companies into the game so we have competition and different people trying different ways of doing things so we have these new approaches to safety and we can learn from it,” said James A. M. Muncy, founder of the space policy lobbying and consulting firm PoliSpace, whose clients include SpaceX.

Learning Period

Paul Stimers, a lobbyist with the firm K&L Gates, which represents Blue Origin and Virgin's Galactic Ventures, said the learning period is aimed at gathering data and taking into account the variety of technologies that different commercial spaceflight companies are developing. He said the initial learning period established by the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 (Pub. L. No. 108-492) did not provide the experience that industry and regulators need to set rules.

“Between the economic slowdown and the fact that space in general is hard to do, we didn’t have enough commercial launches of spaceflight participants and didn’t learn what we needed to learn,” Stimers told Bloomberg BNA.

Data collection is more sophisticated than during the Apollo era. Commercial spacecraft are now fitted with cameras and other technology that dispatch vital information back to the companies and the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation, following a flight from launch to landing. Understanding that data will be critical in developing appropriate regulations, Muncy told Bloomberg BNA.

“If you wrote rules based on NASA heritage in human spaceflight, you would be writing rules based on the level of complexity on the space shuttle or the kind of designs used for Apollo—not what these companies are using,” he said.

The FAA has expressed concern that the growth of space traffic—and the potential for satellites, spacecraft and debris to collide in orbit—requires “adjustments” to the agency's statutory authority.

“As the prospects for a greater number of commercial transportation vehicles in space increase, it is time to consider closing the current regulatory and safety gap between launch and reentry,” George C. Nield, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said in testimony he delivered in February 2014 to a House Science subcommittee.

Licensing Launches

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was created as part of the Transportation Department in 1984 and became part of the FAA in 1995. Since 1989, there have been 245 licensed commercial space launches and 42 permitted experimental launches. The office has issued licenses for 10 commercial spaceports.

The Virginia Commercial Space Flight Authority, which operates the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport at NASA's Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore, reported spending $30,000 on first-quarter lobbying and the operator of the Cecil Field Spaceport in Jacksonville, Fla., reported $50,000 in first-quarter lobbying expenditures.

With the retirement of the space shuttle fleet, NASA and the Air Force are turning to U.S. companies to help launch satellites, haul cargo to the international space station and eventually ferry astronauts into orbit. Musk hopes to land one of SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft on Mars in 2018 and has ambitions of eventually colonizing the red planet, while Bezos has spoken publicly about a distant future when humans will move all heavy industry into space. Space entrepreneurs also hope to mine asteroids for valuable minerals, and the law passed last year includes a provision that allows companies to legally own any materials they collect from asteroids.

Space Renaissance Act

One piece of legislation that some Commercial Spaceflight Federation members reported lobbying on this year is the American Space Renaissance Act (H.R. 4945), which Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) introduced last month. Among other things, the bill would authorize an increase in funding for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation rising to $43.2 million in fiscal 2017 and ramping up annually to $99 million in fiscal 2021, with the aim of expediting permitting and licensing. Current funding for the office for fiscal 2016 is $17.8 million.

The bill also would bar licensed or permitted launches from being subjected to other rules governing non-space transportation vehicles, create a tax credit for launching payloads with American launch providers and establish prizes for such achievements as lunar, asteroid, and Mars missions and space debris cleanup.

The fiscal 2017 defense appropriations act is listed on lobbying disclosures as another priority for Commercial Spaceflight Federation members. The spending bill that the House Appropriations Committee approved May 17 calls for $296.6 million for development of an alternative to the Russian-made rocket engines that a Boeing-Lockheed joint venture currently uses to launch Pentagon satellites, according to the committee's draft report. SpaceX, in particular, has been fighting for opportunities to compete for the Pentagon's business.

Muncy said the main goal in commercial spaceflight is to invest in new competitive spacecraft designs that will ultimately make it easier and cheaper to safely fly people—including students, scientists and tourists—to space while earning a profit.

“The real challenge will be on the industry to actually deliver,” Muncy said.

To contact the reporter on this story: Steff Thomas in Washington at sthomas_ic@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

For More Information

A map of FAA-licensed spaceports can be viewed at http://src.bna.com/e9P.