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NASA and FAA Agree on the Future of Spaceflight

Astronauts and experts check out the accommodations in SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft. Future manned Dragon flights will be regulated according to the new agreement between NASA and FAA. Photo Credit: SpaceX

NASA Administrator Charles Bolden and Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) acting Administrator Michael Huerta agree that their organizations both have an interest in the future of manned spaceflight. This week, they made that understanding official. They signed a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) that regulates safety standards for commercial space travel, providing a stable framework for the US space industry. 

Under the new agreement, NASA and the FAA will share responsibility. Before a launch, commercial providers will now have to obtain a license from the FAA for public safety while NASA will take responsibility for crew safety and mission assurance. This means that government astronauts under NASA’s Commercial Crew Program (CCP) as well as private astronauts flying to low Earth orbit will go under the same safety guidelines.

NASA’s CCP is geared towards the development of a reliable and cost-effective American commercial crew space transportation capability. The target, for now, is low Earth orbit and the International Space Station. For its part, the FAA is responsible for regulating and licensing all American private companies and individuals involved in commercial space transportation. This includes companies like SpaceX that recently became the first private company to successfully dock with the ISS.

The ISS's Canadarm reaches out to SpaceX's unmanned Dragon spacecraft. Photo Credit: NASA

The policy established in the MOU clarifies the guidelines for both organization working together for commercial LEO flights. It also promotes a compatible processes for ensuring public safety and seeks to avoid future conflict over responsibility. As the official signed document says, “NASA intends that all launches supporting ISS crew transportation services will be licensed by the FAA for public safety and wishes to work with FAA to reach a common understanding and approach for meeting that objective.”

“This important agreement between the FAA and NASA will advance our shared goals in commercial space travel,” said U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood. “Working together, we will assure clear, consistent standards for the industry.” Supporting this  shared goal is a shared knowledge base.  This arrangement means both agencies will bring their experience and lessons learned to the table, ultimately bringing two different knowledge bases into the business of LEO spaceflight.

“This agreement is the next step in bringing the business of launching Americans back to American soil,” said Bolden. “We are fostering private sector innovation while maintaining high standards of safety and reliability to re-establish U.S.-crewed access to low-Earth orbit, in-sourcing work to American companies and encouraging the development of dynamic and cost-effective spaceflight capabilities built to last.”

Huerta added that regulating flights to LEO is relevant to more than just space enthusiasts nation-wide. Space is a national interest. “The Obama administration recognizes the scientific, technological and economic benefits of maintaining the United States’ leadership in space travel and exploration,” he said. “This agreement between the FAA and NASA continues and advances those vital national interests.”

This agreement also suggests that future commercial spaceflight will meet another national goal: the safety of its astronauts.

4 comments to NASA and FAA Agree on the Future of Spaceflight

  • Tracy

    Will somebody in this industry explain this to me please…Does this mean that now that SpaceX has completed its design objectives to the ISS that will now be the minimum based threshold procedurally that all other companies following them will have to meet….Thus ensuring that it will be rather ongoing subjective review of each and every future launch???? Won’t this just increase the cost by regulation which in turn will force these companies out of the US?

  • Michael

    I agree that over-regulating the industry is a mistake, but striking a good balance is important. You can’t have every single company that chooses to just sending up spacecraft without some regulation and since the FAA already has experience in controlling flights below Earth orbit it makes sense that they would be involved in establishing orbital flight regulations. Let’s hope that economic considerations don’t become a precursor to avoiding not unnecessary, but just necessary regulation of manned spaceflight.

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