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NASA Astronauts To Fly as ‘Participants’ on Commercial Space Taxis, FAA Rules

NASA currently is contributing more than $1 billion toward the development of three commercial space taxi designs by Space Exploration Technologies Corp., Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. Boeing's CST-100 above. Credit: Boeing artist's concept

KENNEDY SPACE CENTER, Fla. — NASA astronauts will fly as “space flight participants” aboard commercial spaceships being developed to taxi crews to and from the international space station, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation has determined. 

“NASA astronauts do not meet the definition of ‘crew’ as provided in the statute … because the definition of crew requires them to be employees of the licensee or subcontractor licensee. NASA astronauts are neither, so they will be flying under the category of ‘space flight participant,’ under the current regulations,” Pam Underwood, FAA deputy division manager at the Kennedy Space Center, said during a Dec. 4 industry briefing at the Florida spaceport.

The ruling does not limit the scope of the work government-employed astronauts can perform aboard commercial space taxis, including piloting the vehicle, aborting launch if necessary, overseeing emergency response and monitoring and operating environmental controls and life support systems, the FAA said.

NASA sought the clarification because FAA regulations prohibit “space flight participants” to pilot launch or re-entry vehicles for public safety reasons. 

“The FAA’s concern … was based on the possibility that space flight participants would not have the proper vehicle and mission-specific training. However, as NASA notes, NASA astronauts must meet rigorous medical and training requirements, which include training specific to each mission, launch vehicle, and reentry vehicle. 

“Because NASA astronauts are not the untrained space-flight participants originally contemplated by the FAA, the considerations underlying the policy have, at best, a limited applicability to NASA astronauts,” the FAA wrote in an explanation of its ruling published Dec. 2 in the Federal Register.

“Thus, for the scenarios currently envisioned, NASA astronauts may engage in operational activities during a licensed launch or reentry to ensure safety and mission success,” the FAA said.

Relevant regulations, the FAA added in a footnote, “simply require that space flight participants: (1) be informed of risk; (2) execute a waiver of claims against the U.S. Government; (3) receive training on how to respond to emergency situations; and (4) not carry any weapons onboard.”

NASA has been working formally with the FAA since June 2012 to sort out responsibilities and oversight as the U.S. government shifts toward purchasing orbital spaceflight services commercially rather than operating its own space transportation system.

“There’s been a lot of effort to identify what the questions, what the conflicts, what the confusion areas are and then to work through a solution,” said Lisa Colloredo, NASA’s Commercial Crew Program associate manager. 

“We are trying hard to strive for consistency between what both the FAA and NASA is going to require,” she said.

NASA currently is contributing more than $1 billion toward the development of three commercial space taxi designs by Space Exploration Technologies Corp. (SpaceX), Boeing and Sierra Nevada Corp. The agency also has an unfunded partnership agreement with Blue Origin. All four firms had representatives at the preproposal conference, intended to address overall questions and changes in the Commercial Crew Transportation Capability solicitation, which closes Jan. 22.

While funding uncertainties remain, NASA said it still expects to select one or more companies for fixed-price contracts, including possible options for flight services, in August.  

The goal of the program is to restore a U.S. human orbital space launch capability before the end of 2017, a service that ended with the retirement of NASA’s space shuttles in 2011. 

NASA astronauts currently fly to the space station on Russian Soyuz capsules, a service that costs more than $60 million a seat.

Article Comments

This article's title and conclusion are misleading. While the FAA carries out the legal analysis of the scenario presented by NASA, the FAA opinion states in Section C under Jurisdiction in regards to astronauts and commercial space vehicles that:

"We note that Chapter 509 does not apply to launches or reentries the U.S. Government carries out for itself. Accordingly, NASA is not carrying out the launches or reentries that are subject to Chapter 509"

Specifically, 51 U.S.C. 50919(g)(1) states that "[th]is chapter does not apply to-a launch, reentry, operation of a launch vehicle or reentry vehicle, operation of a launch site or reentry site, or other space activity the Government carries out for the Government..."

This means that the commercial spaceflight laws and the regulations promulgated under Title 51 Chapter 509 do not apply to NASA missions, including missions that would ferry NASA astronauts to and from the International Space. Therefore, NASA astronauts would not be considered spaceflight participants contrary to to what this article asserts.

As an addendum, a colleague and I were discussing this issue over the phone this morning and he pointed out to me that the nuance relative to 51 U.S.C. 50919(g)(1) that I misconstrued is that the FAA opinion states that NASA is not considered as carrying out the launches and reentries hypothesized. This is an interesting twist given that NASA will likely require certain standards upon commercial space operators for its astronauts, which are not otherwise required under Chapter 509.

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