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Analysis: Bill clears sky for space rides

By Irene Mona Klotz
Cape Canaveral (UPI) March 12, 2004

When Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the skies more
than 100 years ago with a motorized aircraft, they
need not fear lacking a license to fly -- neither did
their successors for the next few decades.
Eventually, though, the government stepped in to
regulate air traffic to protect the public safety and
ensure standards for those making use of this new form
of transportation.

Last week, the U.S. government took a crucial step in
clearing a path for commercial rocket rides as well.

At first glance, the amendment to the Commercial Space
Launch Act, which the House passed by a 402-1 vote,
seems little more than bureaucratic fence-building. It
stipulates the Federal Aviation Administration's
Office of Commercial Space Transportation will be
responsible for space launchers, whether designed for
suborbital or orbital altitudes.

If Congress had not stepped in to clarify this
responsibility, however, the fledging industry would
have been in danger of smothering beneath the
time-consuming and expensive vehicle certifications
the FAA requires for aircraft.

"If you start to regulate a new industry like
suborbital spaceflight the same way you do a
100-year-old industry like aviation, it never gets off
the ground," said Jim Muncy, a space policy strategist
who runs PoliSpace in Washington, D.C., a consulting
business.

The legislation also defines, for the first time, a
suborbital launch vehicle -- a craft that requires
thrust as opposed to lift during powered phases of
flight. If a vehicle needs thrust to operate, no
matter what it looks like, it is considered a
spacecraft and falls under the less-stringent
regulations of FAA's commercial space office, which is
authorized to regulate the industry, not certify
vehicles as space-worthy or air-worthy.

The act, which is expected to be approved by the
Senate this year and passed on to President George W.
Bush for his signature, also requires government
indemnification of the entire commercial space
industry to be extended until 2007. Launch companies
would be required to purchase insurance before they
could fly, but the coverage would be capped and the
government would step in to take care of any claims
over that amount.

Legislators also authorized a study to assess the best
way the government could step out of this role as
early as 2008, however.

Most important, the legislation paves the road for the
true booster of commercial space: investment.

"I am willing to risk my money on a technical concept
and a team of engineers," Dennis Tito, head of
Wilshire Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., testified
before Congress during hearings for the bill last
year.

"I am willing to risk my money on the customers
actually showing up," Tito continued. "And I am
willing to risk my money competing against other
companies in the marketplace. But I am not willing to
risk my money on a regulatory question mark, on
waiting for the government to decide who can give me
permission to get into business, and what the
regulatory standards for my business will be."

Tito, who became the first fare-paying tourist in
space when he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on
April 30, 2001, for a week's stay at the International
Space Station, is considering investing in a company
developing a passenger-carrying suborbital spaceship.

"If Congress can reduce the huge regulatory risk faced
by potential investors like myself, I believe that
within five years we will ignite a revolution in
commercial space transportation," Tito said.

"The most effective way to make suborbital flight safe
is to allow innovative ideas," said Jeff Greason,
chief executive officer of startup XCOR Aerospace of
Mojave, Calif. "By resolving regulatory uncertainty,
this bill creates an environment that will attract
investment to an industry that has the potential to
produce quality, high-paying jobs."

The reason why suborbital spaceflight is emerging as
an industry is due in part of a private, non-profit
advocacy organization called the X Prize Foundation,
which will award $10 million and a very large trophy
to the first team that develops and flies a manned
vehicle to an altitude of 62 miles -- suborbital space
-- and back twice within a two-week period. The
contest, which has attracted 27 entrants, is due to
expire at the end of this year.

The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is
close to approving its first license for a suborbital
manned spaceflight. The legislation authorizes the FAA
to issue experimental-class licenses for suborbital
rockets. The aviation-side of the FAA has a similar
program for experimental aircraft.

"This is about a lot more than 'joy rides' in space,
although there's nothing wrong with such an
enterprise," said House Science Committee Chairman
Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.

"This is about the future of the U.S. aerospace
industry. As in most areas of American enterprise, the
greatest innovations in aerospace are most likely to
come from small entrepreneurs. This is true whether
we're talking about launching humans or cargo. And the
goal of this bill is to promote robust
experimentation, to make sure that entrepreneurs and
inventors have the incentives and the capabilities
they need to pursue their ideas," said Boehlert.

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