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NASA, FAA will share commercial space crew oversight

Jun. 19, 2012 - 02:55PM   |  

As it does with passenger planes, the Federal Aviation Administration will license flights of commercial rockets and spacecraft carrying astronauts. But when NASA crews are on board, the space agency will continue to certify that the flights are safe.

An agreement announced Monday outlined those roles, clarifying how the two agencies plan to share oversight of commercial crew flights to the International Space Station.

“When [the FAA licenses] a launch, they’re doing so to ensure that it doesn’t pose a hazard to the uninvolved public,” said Jeff Foust, an industry analyst with Futron Corp. “NASA will have their safety standards to ensure that the launch vehicle also doesn’t pose a risk to the people sitting on top of it.”

NASA hopes to begin flying crews commercially by 2017 and is working with a group of companies to finance the development of vehicles.

Around mid-July, the agency expects to announce winners of its next round of seed funding to complete system designs, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said. The agency plans to finance three companies, two with full awards — expected to range from $300 million to $500 million over nearly two years — and one with a partial award.

The announcement confirmed industry expectations for how NASA and the FAA would partner to sign off on crewed flights to the station.

The process will work much like it did during SpaceX’s recent unmanned demonstration flight to the outpost.

The FAA, which licenses commercial space missions, approved the launch and re-entry of the company’s Dragon capsule, focusing on the safety of the general public.

Meanwhile, NASA was concerned about the Dragon’s ability to safely fly around and berth with the space station to deliver its cargo.

For future crewed missions, the agency has published the human-rating standards it will use to certify commercial vehicles’ safety, and it will perform flight readiness reviews before giving a “go” for launch.

“We are responsible for ensuring the safety of the crews when they fly on NASA missions,” Bolden said.

NASA will have no involvement in flights of non-NASA astronauts to private space stations or other destinations. That will be up to the FAA and the flights’ customers.

NASA controlled every aspect of flight during shuttle operations.

That’s changing now that the agency won’t own and operate station-bound vehicles.

“They’re not paying for the launch. They’re paying for the service,” Foust said. “They’re paying to have X thousand pounds of cargo delivered to the space station or seven astronauts sent to the space station, and more of the responsibility for how to do that falls into the lap of the commercial provider.”

This month, NASA and the FAA signed a five-page memorandum of understanding outlining how they would collaborate to promote safety while avoiding duplication and conflicting requirements.

“Working together, we will assure clear, consistent standards for the industry,” Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood said in a statement.

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