The future safety of human spaceflight is in the hands of Congress
Michael Lopez-Alegria is a retired NASA astronaut who is now the chief astronaut for Axiom Space, a commercial space company based in Houston. The opinions expressed are his professional opinion derived from more than three decades of experience in the space industry.
Returning to space as commander of the first fully commercial human spaceflight mission to the International Space Station (ISS), the Axium-1 mission, quickly reminded me that the work done every day in microgravity really does build a better world. life on earth. My colleagues and I have engaged in as much STEM outreach in just a couple of weeks while on board, just as I did 15 years ago as a NASA astronaut. Now the expansion of commercial capabilities will only increase the volume of research and scientific and technological demonstrations that are conducted in space exponentially.
The groundbreaking achievements of these efforts depend on policies and legislation that have created a path for private companies to develop manned spaceflight transportation systems – a dramatic change from the previous 50 years, when these systems were solely owned and operated by governments. Among this landmark legislation was the creation of a “learning period,” in which the commercial spaceflight industry was given a period of time during which no regulation was imposed that might stifle innovation and the development of new systems. This learning period is due to end this year, meaning the legislation must either be renewed, or it will expire.
Congress has a choice to make this fall: reauthorize the “learning period” to put the nation on a smooth path to securing a safety framework commensurate with industry maturity, or allow the “learning period” to expire, setting the future for commercial human spaceflight. And America’s leadership in space more generally is at serious risk.
Human spaceflight has always been my personal passion, and it is clear that the safety of its participants is near and dear to my heart. It is an honor to be the chair of ASTM’s effort on standards for commercial spaceflight. ASTM is a world-renowned standards development organization that works with industry, government, and other stakeholders to develop internationally accepted standards that can be used by both industry and governments. Consensus standards have proven fundamental to the safety and success of many industries, including consumer products, aerospace, and medical devices, and are a powerful tool in helping make commercial human spaceflight safer as companies work to make space more accessible than ever before.
The space industry is taking lessons learned from past human spaceflight efforts and recent innovations, and applying them to the unique array of vehicles now in flight as well as those under development. Each company provides expertise on how their system works and why it works. By sharing, collaborating, and agreeing on what should be standardized, the industry as a whole becomes safer. These standards are flexible and can be updated as the industry evolves.
Continuous development of these standards is a much better option for enhancing the safety of commercial human spaceflight than letting the “learning period” expire. This approach allows real experts residing in the industry to collaborate, with strong involvement and involvement from government regulatory agencies, to define standards that enhance safety that are also applicable for industry adoption. Moreover, under the National Technology Transfer and Development Act of 1995, future federal regulators may refer to the very standards the industry helped develop as final regulation.
On the other hand, if regulation is introduced too early, we risk imposing guidance based on too little experience and discouraging creativity at a time when the industry has not yet reached full maturity. Transparency, stability and long-term predictability in the human spaceflight regulatory system will be critical one day, but moving to a “common vector” style of human spaceflight regulation now will have a chilling effect on innovation and entrepreneurial success.
Congress should support the US commercial space industry and the thousands of high-tech American jobs it has created through a flexible path of regulation that allows for transformative leaps in our technological development. The legal “learning period” is currently scheduled to expire at the end of September this year. We have the opportunity to work together through government innovation in regulation and industry compatibility to support a burgeoning space economy at a time of increasing global competition. I encourage Congress to consider taking a step forward that embraces the voluntary standards process, consistent with industry maturity, while keeping the hatch open for what the future regulatory environment will look like once the industry achieves a routine human spaceflight cadence with a variety of vehicle and spacecraft launches.
Together, we can find a solution that will ensure we are globally competitive, encourage innovation, and continue to lead the world in human spaceflight safety. Let’s work together to chart this path forward.