NASA, FAA Collaborate On Commercial Space Travel

Space agency increasingly turns to private sector partners for services, so feds seek to ensure safety and minimize overlapping efforts with a new cross-agency agreement.
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
NASA's Blue Marble: 50 Years Of Earth Imagery
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NASA and the FAA on Monday announced plans to work together on standards for commercial space travel, an attempt to avoid conflict and duplication of effort as private sector companies increasingly transport astronauts into low-Earth orbit and to the International Space Station.

The agencies reached a memorandum of understanding (MOU) based on their common, "interdependent" interests in ensuring that commercial space flights to the ISS are safe and effective. They agreed to share data and information in support of those goals.

The agreement follows last month's launch and return of Space Exploration Technologies' Dragon to the ISS, the first commercial spacecraft to make that roundtrip. A second SpaceX flight to the ISS is scheduled for August, to be followed by a test flight of Orbital Sciences' Antares rocket later this year.

NASA has turned to the private sector to provide transportation services to the ISS, following the retirement of the Space Shuttle program in 2011 after 135 missions over 30 years. More than 60 companies are partners and suppliers to NASA's Commercial Crew Program.

[ Government efforts in space are always changing. Read NASA Cancels GEMS, Readies NuSTAR Telescope. ]

The FAA is responsible for regulating U.S. companies involved in commercial space transportation, and it has licensed 207 commercial launches since 2004. Last month, Virgin Galactic announced that the FAA had issued an experimental launch permit to Scaled Composites for its suborbital spacecraft, SpaceshipTwo, and carrier aircraft, WhiteKnightTwo. In the spring, Virgin Galactic announced that it signed its 500th future passenger, actor Ashton Kutcher.

A report on the commercial space market, published recently by the FAA's Commercial Space Transportation office and the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, forecasts an average of 29.1 commercial launches annually over the next 10 years, with just over half of those being for geosynchronous orbit satellites.

An FAA commercial space license is required for any launch or reentry within the United States, or operations conducted by U.S. companies outside of the U.S. The agency reviews applications for public safety, environmental impact, payload, national security or foreign policy issues, and insurance. The FAA also issues experimental permits for space flight research and development.

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