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The tricky realities of regulating private space flight

The tricky realities of regulating private space flight

Posting in Government

We're cleared for launch, but what about reentry?

Private space flight has no problem stealing headlines across the news media. And why shouldn't it? Progress has been brisk as of late, and the central premise of any story about new spacecraft--that we will someday be able to buy a ticket into the great beyond--is deeply and universally romantic.

Less romantic, but no less important, is the regulatory structure that will make the commercial space flight revolution possible As SpaceX holds its breath in anticipation of the first full launch of an operational Dragon spacecraft, the FAA is getting ready to pass a milestone of its own: the agency is expected to grant its first ever reentry license, and soon.

Over 200 launch licenses have already been granted by the FAA for commercial launches, but the craft were either never destined for orbit, or never intended to reenter. With the Dragon, SpaceX hopes to send a reusable craft into low Earth orbit for about four hours, after which it will reenter the atmosphere and splash down off the coast of Southern California.

Ensuring that a single vehicle has the space to careen through the atmophere for a few minutes isn't a very tall order, but the FAA is doing much more than that. In licensing the Dragon, the FAA is instituting a sort of first draft of a specific part of a wider regulatory framework for private spaceflight, which has been in development for years.

The creation of the commercial space flight sector can be traced back to the passage of the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, which set out guidelines for the acquisition of launch licenses for private rockets, and granted the Office of Commercial Space Transportation--then operating under the direct authority of the office of the DOT, but now a part of the office of the FAA--the authority to grant them. Regulations for reusable craft, and rules for their human passengers, have only recently started to coalesce, to accomodate the development and testing of Virgin Galactic's SpaceShipOne and the SpaceX's Falcon series.

Most recently, the FAA partnered with a handful of academic institutions around the country to get to work on the nuts and bolts of commercial space regulations. Established by Congress in 2010, the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation has its work cut out for it:

The research and development efforts will include four major research areas: space launch operations and traffic management; launch vehicle systems, payloads, technologies, and operations; commercial human space flight; and space commerce (including space law, space insurance, space policy and space regulation).

Their work won't be relegated to stuffy offices in DC, either. In fact, according to Discovery News, it could have a transformative effect on one of NASA's most iconic facilities:

The FAA also plans to set up a technical operations center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida if Congress approves funding. In preparation for the shutdown of the shuttle program next year, NASA plans to revamp the spaceport to serve a variety of commercial and government users in the future.

Though such a change might be jarring to NASA traditionalists, it would dovetail nicely with the Obama administration's recent push for investment in commercial space flight, and could prove invaluable as the shuttle program winds down, making way for the next generation of orbital travelers.

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John Herrman

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor John Herrman is a freelance writer based in New York City. He is also contributing editor at Gizmodo. He holds a degree from the University of Edinburgh. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure