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XCOR chief slams FAA jurisdictional fight

This story appeared in the Antelope Valley Press on Thursday, August 21, 2003.

Valley Press Staff Writer

MOJAVE - Innovators developing the emerging field of commercial space travel are exploring uncharted territory, not just in space but in regulatory bureaucracy as well.
Before commercial space travel can get off the ground, entrepreneurs and federal regulators need to reach agreement on how such reusable, suborbital spacecraft will be licensed.

As these space travel pioneers seek to license operations of their fledgling spacecraft, two different branches of the Federal Aviation Administration are competing for jurisdiction over them. The impasse threatens further investment and development of the projects.

"It's adding a lot of delay and confusion," said Jeff Greason , president of Mojave-based XCOR Aerospace. "It's been a problem."

XCOR manufactures safe, reliable, reusable rocket engines, Greason said, and is working on development of a vehicle for commercial space travel. The company successfully demonstrated its rocket technology with the EZ-Rocket, a rocket-powered airplane piloted by Dick Rutan.

Greason testified about the regulatory impasse July 24 at a joint hearing of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics and the Senate Subcommittee on Science Technology and Space.

"I think this argument is without merit," Greason said. "I think the law is already clear. Congress has said suborbital rockets are launch vehicles.

"We're asking Congress to clarify this once and for all."

Joining Greason in testifying were Dennis Tito, the first "space tourist"; Elon Musk , founder and president of SpaceX, another space launch company; Phil McAlister of the Futron Corp., an economic forecasting company; and Jon Kutler , chairman and CEO of Quarterdeck Investment Partners, an investment bank focused on aerospace and defense industries.

"Opening space to those willing to pay for the experience of it offers our industrial base a new source of technical innovation well beyond government's sphere of activities," Congressman Dana Rohrabacher said in his opening statement at the hearing. The California Republican is chairman of the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics.

"Unfortunately, a major barrier for new space launch ventures is the uncertainty in government's ability to create a stable regulatory environment. It is clear the future of space commercialization hinges on the Federal Aviation Administration's ability to resolve the issue of how to regulate commercial human spaceflight operations," Rohrabacher said.

At the core of the regulatory debate is the definition of the suborbital spacecraft proposed by XCOR and other such enterprises. Depending on the definition, different branches of the FAA claim jurisdiction.

The only space-related line of business within the FAA, the office of associate administrator for commercial space transportation, or AST, was established as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation and transferred to the FAA in 1995. The office is responsible for licensing commercial launches of orbital rockets and suborbital sounding rockets.

"We've been working with them since 1999 on how to find a balance between their two missions, which (are) to promote the industry and protect public safety," Greason said.

When work started on regulating the industry, "there was no such thing as a reusable launch vehicle," he said. "When developing the regulatory approach, they were basically guessing what the needs would be."

Now, however, various efforts to develop these reusable launch vehicles are close to success and seeking launch licenses.

"This whole industry that has been thought about and talked about for a long time … started to look real. That opened a whole different class of debate," he said.

The reusable launch vehicles under development by the fledgling industry are suborbital vehicles.

"Nobody defined suborbital rockets anywhere" in establishing regulations, Greason said.

As such, some interests in the aviation division of the FAA have determined that the vehicles should be classified as airplanes, not launch vehicles, which would subject them to different - and more stringent - regulations.

Such regulations would make development of the space vehicles impractical.

Speaking about classifications, Greason said,"It's hard enough to get an airplane certificated as an airplane. To get something totally outside of the experience of airplanes - our grandchildren would be the ones to get it certificated."

The safety regulations for airplanes are based on years of successful flying experiences. Such experiences are not yet available for space flight.

"It's way too early in the development of the industry to try and draw up those standards for space vehicles," Greason said.

As part of the internal FAA debate, a draft definition of suborbital rockets was created, stating that such vehicles are kept in the air more by rocket-powered thrust than by lift. In contrast, an airplane is a vehicle kept in the air by lift.

However, these definitions were neither accepted or rejected by the FAA senior management.

"We liked the internal definitions they came up with," Greason said. "We think they make sense."

Until the debate over jurisdiction is settled, the license applications at AST for suborbital vehicles are on hold.

"It's unclear whether or not they will be able to act on them," Greason said. "This being in limbo is no good."

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