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FAA Commercial Space Conference Takeaways From Bridenstine, Babin, Gerstenmaier, and Stern

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 08-Feb-2017
Updated: 16-Feb-2017 05:20 PM

The 20th FAA Commercial Space Transportation conference in Washington, DC ended today.  Among the many interesting keynotes and panel discussions were presentations by Reps. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) and Brian Babin (R-TX) and the head of NASA's human spaceflight program Bill Gerstenmaier.

Babin chairs the Space Subcommittee of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee.  Bridenstine is a member of that subcommittee as well as the Strategic Forces subcommittee of the House Armed Services Committee, which oversees many national security space programs. Gerstenmaier is NASA's Associate Administrator for Human Exploration and Operations (HEO), which oversees the International Space Station (ISS) and its associated commercial cargo and commercial crew programs, as well as development of the Space Launch System (SLS), Orion crew spacecraft, and other systems needed to send humans beyond low Earth orbit.

The conference was organized by the Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) for the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). 

CSF Chairman Alan Stern opened the conference yesterday with an announcement that surprised many in the audience.  Pointedly telling reporters in the room that he wanted them to hear him clearly, he said CSF was announcing that it supports SLS.   "Exploration of space for all purposes, including commercial spaceflight, is our interest and to that end the CSF is announcing that we see many potential benefits" in NASA's SLS program.  "There are bright futures across the spectrum in commercial space and the SLS can be a resource that ... makes our future .. even brighter."

The statement is somewhat surprising because there is a tension between those who support government development of new launch vehicles and those who think that should be left to private sector companies with the expectation they can do it more quickly and cost effectively.  Since CSF represents many of the companies developing and marketing space launch services, its support for a government-developed system was far from assured.

Here are snapshots from the remarks by Bridenstine, Babin, and Gerstenmaier.

Bridenstine

Bridenstine's prepared remarks closely tracked those he made last year at this conference and in other venues.  Today he listed four actions that are needed to effectively leverage the commercial space industry:

  • strike a balance between what the government should purchase, own and operate and what the government should acquire as a service;
  • fix the regulatory structure by restoring AST to the more prominent position it had before 1995 in the Office of the Secretary of Transportation and adequately fund it;
  • relieve DOD of the task of providing space situational awareness (SSA) data to non-military entities by reassigning it to a civil agency like AST (but not necessarily AST -- it is an issue Congress should discuss);
  • provide commercial space companies with a process that ensures a minimum regulatory burden with maximum regulatory certainty.

With regard to the last point, he advocates that AST be assigned responsibility for regulating non-traditional commercial space activities like asteroid mining or placing habitats on the Moon in order to comply with U.S. obligations under the Outer Space Treaty.   He is developing legislation that would create an "enhanced payload review process" building on AST's existing payload review process to authorize and continually supervise private sector activities in space.  Currently AST regulates only launch and reentry, not what takes place in space.  "We must ensure there is no question as to the statutory and regulatory mechanisms the United States government can utilize to affirmatively approve" non-traditional space activities. 

His views on regulation of non-traditional space activities contrast with those advocated by Babin (discussed below).  Bridenstine said in response to a question that he and Babin are good friends and although they have not reached agreement on how to harmonize their disparate approaches, he is optimistic they will.

Bridenstine is a leading candidate to become NASA Administrator.  Although he is best known for his leadership in Congress on space issues at DOD, FAA and NOAA, his American Space Renaissance Act (ASRA) from last year addressed NASA issues, too. Today he declined to answer a question about whether he might become Administrator, but did express his strong support for NASA's SLS and Orion programs.  He is identified with the commercial space sector and some SLS/Orion advocates worry that commercial space supporters may try to undermine SLS/Orion by arguing that the commercial sector can provide requisite capabilities quicker and cheaper.  Bridenstine clearly stated today that SLS and Orion have his full support, however.  He also said he is "100 percent" in favor of sending humans to Mars and reiterated his enthusiasm for a return to the Moon.

ASRA was never intended to pass as a stand-alone bill, but rather to serve as a repository for provisions that could be incorporated into other legislation.  Ten of its provisions were included in the FY2017 National Defense Authorization Act. Bridenstine said today that he plans to introduce an updated version of ASRA and welcomes input.  

Bridenstine also was asked about a letter he recently sent, along with two other Members of Congress, questioning whether DARPA's Robotic Servicing of Geosynchronous Satellites (RSGS) program conforms with National Space Policy wherein the government is not supposed to compete with the private sector and is supposed to make government technologies available to commercial companies on an equitable basis. The letter states that DARPA's plan to award a $200 million contract to a single company, which would retain the satellite and the intellectual property, violates the policy and would distort the market.  DARPA was about to award that contract to Space Systems/Loral, but Orbital ATK filed suit against DARPA yesterday to stop it.  Orbital ATK is developing geosynchronous satellite servicing technologies itself.  Bridenstine said today that RSGS is critical for national security and while there are some technologies that only DARPA can develop, such as completely autonomous mechanical servicing, others can be provided commercially, such as maneuvering capabilities.  DARPA demonstrating technologies is one thing, but commercializing them is another, he argued, and that is why he wrote the letter. 

Babin

Babin's speech also closely paralleled what he said last year.   He and Bridenstine disagree on how to regulate new non-traditional space activities to ensure the United States complies with its international treaty obligations.  While Bridenstine wants to create an enhanced payload review process administered by AST to provide regulatory certainty to companies, Babin does not accept that regulations are needed at all.  He asserts that companies should not have to obtain government permission to conduct any space activity.  Instead, the burden should be on the government to demonstrate that it has a requirement to intrude.  He wants a regime where private sector activities are "presumed authorized" and the government can place restrictions on those activities only if it cannot address its concerns by any other means.

Babin also disagrees on the idea of AST taking responsibility for providing SSA to non-military users.  He argues that there are other options -- other government agencies or a public private partnership -- that need to be explored first.  As he said last year, he plans to hold hearings on these topics this year.

Gerstenmaier

Gerstenmaier focused his remarks on risk -- specifically the risks inherent in human spaceflight.  His office oversees the development of commercial crew systems by SpaceX and Boeing that will take crews to and from ISS beginning next year, as well as the Orion spacecraft that will take astronauts to cis-lunar space and eventually to Mars.

One metric for characterizing risk in this context is the probability of a failure that would kill the crew -- Loss of Crew (LOC).  Gerstenmaier's message is that there will always be "unknown unknowns" in any system, no matter how many times it flies, and thus there will always be some level of risk  The more the system flies, the more experience is gained, and the more engineers learn about what might fail.  He noted that when the first space shuttle flew in 1981, models calculated the LOC at 1 in 500 to 1 in 5000.   After accumulating data on all 135 shuttle flights -- two of which, Challenger and Columbia, ended with the deaths of their crews -- NASA concluded that the actual risk for that first flight was 1 in 12.  At the end of the program, after those 135 flights, the risk overall was put at 1 in 90.

The LOC for the commercial crew program was set at 1 in 275, but he stressed that too much importance is assigned to that figure. He argued that LOC numbers are useful for comparing different designs, for example, but not in determining absolute risk.  "Do not judge a spacecraft by its LOC number," he urged.   The challenge is to not become complacent as systems start flying because there is always more to learn.  "Stay hungry, stay curious, stay humble" and do not be afraid to discover new problems, discuss them, understand them, and solve them.

The public and other stakeholders need to understand and acknowledge these risks, he said, so NASA needs to learn how to effectively communicate with them as these new systems are about to come on line.

Note:  Gerstenmaier said the LOC metric is 1 in 275 for commercial crew, but it actually is 1 in 270.


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