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Research Questions

  1. What is the progress of the commercial space industry in adopting voluntary industry consensus standards for participant safety?
  2. What is the progress of the commercial space industry toward meeting key metrics that would indicate readiness for regulation?
  3. Are areas identified in previous reports to Congress now appropriate for regulatory action, or should those areas see further development of voluntary consensus standards without regulatory actions?

At Congress's request, RAND researchers assessed the progress that the commercial spaceflight industry has made in adopting voluntary safety standards, the industry's progress in meeting key metrics set by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in 2017, and whether the industry has matured such that areas identified in FAA reports are ready for regulatory action. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015 imposes a moratorium on safety regulations until October 1, 2023. The FAA will be authorized to propose and issue regulations upon expiration of the moratorium (if it is allowed to expire).

The RAND team reviewed the existing literature and public data. They also conducted interviews with subject-matter experts and stakeholders across the space domain, including government, industry, and standards development organizations.

In the authors' assessment, the readiness of the commercial space industry for regulation, or for further development of voluntary consensus standards, does not only depend on the progress of adopting standards and meeting metrics. Regulatory readiness depends also on five key factors: access to, and understanding of, the regulatory process; security of regulatory support; the effectiveness of the regulatory support for the technology; environmental effects, costs, and security issues related to the regulation; and the ability to pass the regulation.

The authors found that regulatory action is appropriate in the following form: allowing the moratorium to expire as per current law, continuing the development of voluntary consensus standards, and instituting Space Aerospace Rulemaking Committees. These regulatory actions should be accompanied by additional resourcing of the FAA.

Key Findings

Standards development organizations (SDOs) have developed voluntary standards related to commercial spaceflight that could affect participant safety, but significant work remains

  • Some stakeholders expressed concern that the process is moving too slowly.
  • Several challenges are limiting the development of consensus standards, but the process of building consensus standards remains valuable, particularly because it provides a forum for collaboration and for industry members to provide input and feedback.
  • Although no single set of consensus standards for participant safety has been adopted across the industry, commercial spaceflight companies have their own sets of safety practices that might (or might not) incorporate SDO standards.
  • Directly assessing the safety practices of individual companies was not possible because much of this information is treated as proprietary.

Many of the current key metrics that support voluntary consensus safety standards do not have characteristics that would allow assessment of industry progress toward meeting those standards

  • The data and information related to many key metrics are unique to the individual companies and are deemed by the companies to be proprietary or otherwise not publicly releasable.
  • Interviewees could not identify unambiguous criteria based on metrics that would signal readiness to end the moratorium and transition to a framework that might include regulations.
  • Most interviewees did not believe that a binary view of whether regulations were appropriate was the right approach; rather, they believed that some aspects of industry operations might be ready for some forms of regulations while others might not be.

Recommendations

  • Allow the moratorium to end as per current law.
  • Resource the FAA appropriately for the development of appropriate regulations.
  • Proceed with Space Aerospace Rulemaking Committees.
  • Continue voluntary consensus standards and key metric development.
  • Consider limited informal rulemaking.

Research conducted by

This research was sponsored by the Federal Aviation Administration and was conducted within the Community Health and Environmental Policy Program within RAND Social and Economic Well-Being.

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