Suborbital activists go to Washington

Posted: February 22, 2003

A group of space activists coordinated by a new industry organization visited Capitol Hill last week in an effort to talk to legislators about regulatory reforms to help promote the incipient suborbital reusable launch industry.

About a dozen member of the newly-formed Suborbital Institute visited the offices of over two dozen members of Congress during the one-day event on February 10, wryly dubbed "Love & Rockets" because of the event's proximity to Valentine's Day and the strong interest the organization's members have in suborbital spaceflight.

The goal of the Suborbital Institute's first Congressional briefing was to raise awareness among members of Congress and their staffs about the efforts of a number of entrepreneurial companies to develop reusable vehicles capable of suborbital spaceflight and the regulatory hurdles that lie in the path of these firms.

Suborbital spacecraft are vehicles that fly into space, typically to altitudes of at least 100 kilometers, but do not travel fast enough to attain orbit. Currently only unmanned sounding rockets perform suborbital flight, but a number of companies, primarily small entrepreneurial efforts, are currently developing reusable, manned spacecraft for suborbital flights.

This new push for manned suborbital spaceflight comes from two primary sources. One is the X Prize, a $10 million competition to develop the first reusable suborbital spacecraft capable of carrying three people to an altitude of 100 km twice in a two-week period. The other has been the collapse in demand for commercial launches, driven by the failure of ventures like Iridium and Teledesic, forcing companies that were once interested in developing orbital reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) to explore suborbital markets.

While suborbital spaceflight has been most closely linked to space tourism, there are a number of other markets for such vehicles. A report by the US Department of Commerce published last December identified a number of possible uses for suborbital spacecraft, from microgravity experimentation to remote sensing. Suborbital vehicles also provide "an incremental approach that will lead to commercial orbital RLVs," said Paula Trimble, an analyst with the Commerce Department's Office of Space Commercialization, during a breakfast meeting that preceded the day's lobbying efforts.

Suborbital spaceflight does bring up a number of regulatory issues, notably with the FAA. Kelvin Coleman, special assistant for programs and planning with the FAA's Office of the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST), said that suborbital flight falls "right near the line of aviation operations." This makes it unclear whether such vehicles should be regulated like launch vehicles or like high-performance aircraft. "We at FAA are challenged to figure out where that line is," Coleman said.

When XCOR Aerospace, a California company developing a suborbital RLV, conducted flight tests of its EZ Rocket rocket-powered airplane, it sought and obtained an experimental aircraft license from the FAA because it provided more flexibility than a launch license, as each flight could theoretically require obtaining a separate license. AST is aware of those concerns, Coleman said, and has recently published an advisory circular explaining how the current rules could be used by XCOR and other companies to fly test regimes without getting a separate launch license for each flight.

Nonetheless, one of the key talking points the Suborbital Institute made for its day on the Hill was to promote a "flexible model of regulation" that allows for the type of flexibility a young industry like suborbital spaceflight needs. Pat Bahn, founder and CEO of TGV Rockets and a founder of the Suborbital Institute, said that he's "70 percent happy" with what the FAA has done to date, adding that "their hearts are in the right place and they're trying very hard."

Besides FAA regulation, another key point for the Suborbital Institute is insurance. The current insurance environment isn't suitable for suborbital RLVs, as launch insurance was designed for expendable vehicles and commercial aviation insurance is unwilling to provide enough insurance to cover the maximum probable loss determined by the FAA. The Institute believes the federal government should step in to help fill the gap between what is required and what is currently offered. The Institute also advocates the creation of multiple spaceports around the country for use by suborbital RLVs, rather than a single national spaceport like Cape Canaveral.

The Institute, whose corporate members include TGV, XCOR, Armadillo Aerospace, and X-Rocket LLC, doesn't think that the loss of the space shuttle Columbia earlier this month will have a major impact on their efforts. "We have a real opportunity here, better than we had a week ago, as even in the public's eye it's clear that the way we are developing space isn't working," said Earl Renaud, chief operating officer of TGV. "We need to get the message out that there are people who want to do this and they need the government's support, or at least step back and not hinder the industry."

For Bahn, who started TGV Rockets several years ago as a suborbital company when most entrepreneurial efforts were focused on orbital RLVs, the growth in interest in suborbital vehicles has been something of a vindication. "I've been out in the wilderness for a while," he said, "and now I've found that it's turned into a minor suburb."

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