The Federal Aviation Administration’s top regulator for space flight says his agency is struggling to keep up with the rapid growth of the commercial space industry as it wrestles with new issues including whether it should ensure the safety of space tourists and which of them should get commercial astronaut’s wings.
Wayne R. Monteith, a retired Air Force general who served for years in space billets in Colorado Springs is now the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. He told a Space Symposium crowd at The Broadmoor Wednesday that to a large extent, he’s trying to keep his agency out of the way of the rush to space.
“A regulatory agency can either be an accelerator or an inhibitor of industry,” he said. “We choose to be an accelerator.”
Monteith’s agency has overseen commercial space launches since the 1980s, but it used to be a small job. Just a decade ago, the agency licensed a single commercial launch over the course of the year. This year, Monteith expects to authorize more than 60 launches, and expects the pace to accelerate for years to come.
But a license to launch is nothing like a driver’s license. Fender benders and wrong turns are permitted as long as no one gets hurt.
“About 15 percent of the launches we license have a mishap,” Monteith said, using the space industry’s polite word used to replace harsher terms including explosion, crash, and massive fireball.
But all of those mishaps don’t move a whisker of Monteith’s post-Air Force gray beard unless they wind up impacting the group he calls the “uninvolved public.”
“We do public safety, not mission assurance,” he said.
Even the military is keeping its hands off the exuberant commercial space industry.
Lt. Gen Stephen Whiting, who heads the Space Force’s Space Operations Command in Colorado Springs said all of his stars can’t stop someone else’s private trip to the stars.
“The Department of Defense and Space Force are not regulatory agencies,” he said Wednesday.
The military has long helped commercial space interests avoid in-orbit collisions by offering tracking data on objects in space, but that’s heading to the Department of Commerce. The civilian agency is working with commercial firms, including several in Colorado Springs that will help prevent orbital traffic jams.
“They are standing up that capability,” Whiting said.
And the new space capabilities created by commercial space entities have generals seeing future military possibilities.
“I’m super excited by that,” Whiting said of space tourism.
But before you strap yourself to a rocket, read the fine print. If things go wrong, Monteith’s agency won’t send so much as a sympathy card.
“Right now we operate under an informed consent regime,” Monteith said. In other words, let the flyer beware.
Monteith warned, though, that mishaps for manned space flight that escalate to what he called “catastrophe,” have consequences.
“The worst case is a catastrophic failure,” he said. “Then, we will regulate.”
Monteith is very interested in regulations governing whether those who survive their tourist ride to space will get a federal trophy to remember the trip.
Right now, anyone who reaches 50 miles above the planet and can fit into a wide definition of “flight crew” is entitled to federal astronaut’s wings. But Monteith is figuring out whether paying passengers should get the honor.
“Right now I don’t want to be in the business of who gets the duty title of astronaut. But we are in it,” he said.