Developers of commercial space stations want clarification on restrictions

In Washington Companies developing commercial space stations that will replace the International Space Station claim that the federal government has to be more clear about who would regulate them and how.

Representatives of several of the companies developing commercial space stations complained about having to deal with a “alphabet soup” of organisations during panel discussions at the Beyond Earth Symposium in this city on October 13. They claimed that none of these organisations currently has the authority to oversee their operations as required by the Outer Space Treaty.

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Mike Gold, executive vice president for civil space and external affairs at Redwire Space, a partner on the Orbital Reef commercial space station concept, said, “We need to figure these things out now so that we don’t have problematic issues that slow down the engineering, the scientific, and the commercial progress in the future.” “We need confidence in the regulatory structure, predictability in the regulatory framework, and transparency in the regulatory framework.”

As per Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty, no federal agency currently has the power to grant the authorisation and ongoing oversight of commercial space stations. Other developing commercial space industries, such as satellite servicing and lunar landers, have similar gaps in authority.

The utter alphabet soup of agencies to which we must turn in order to carry out our operations, he warned, “must be carefully considered.” They are the Federal Aviation Administration for launch licences and payload evaluations, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for remote sensing permits, and the Federal Communications Commission for communications licences. Other organisations, such as the Departments of Commerce and Defense, may be involved in those reviews.

It’s incredibly difficult, he declared. Consolidation and simplification are essential because they make life easier for the private sector and promote better safety and innovation.

These problems are getting worse as the businesses move closer to the initial space station component launches, despite some scheduling setbacks. Axiom Space’s Mary Lynne Dittmar, the business’s chief government and external relations officer, revealed that after initially anticipating launching its first commercial module in late 2024, the company now expects to do it in late 2025. She claimed that as the module is undergoing a crucial design assessment, the corporation has only “rebasedlined” that schedule. In six to eight months, a duplicate of the first module would be released.

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When asked what regulatory modifications were necessary to allow for projects like Axiom’s commercial space station and others, she pointed out that many problems are interconnected. However, mission authorisation is a crucial concern. “There are many other concerns that immediately relate to it, so I want to understand how it’s going to be packaged and where that’s going to sit.”

According to Gold, determining how to carry out the “continuous supervision” mandated by Article 6 is part of mission authorisation. For that, he advocated using a “self-certification” strategy. From a regulatory standpoint, it’s crucial that the private sector be at the forefront of providing such information to the government since “we’re in the driver’s seat and understand the technology more than anyone.”

There are many different ideas about how to execute mission authorization. It was suggested that it be housed within the Department of Transportation by George Nield, a former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation.

“I suggest that we seize this opportunity to recognise spaceflight as a mode of transportation, much like roadways, trains, maritime, aircraft, and pipelines,” he added. “We should also form a Bureau of Commercial Space Transportation under the U.S. Department of Transportation.” “That might be a one-stop shop for space regulation.”

According to Eric Stallmer, executive vice president of government affairs and public policy at Voyager Space, which is developing its Starlab commercial space station, having a list of authorities to contact for mission authorisation would be helpful in the short term. It’s a model that we could all adopt, he remarked.

Erika Wagner, senior director for new space markets at Blue Origin, a main partner in Orbital Reef, noted the success of private astronaut missions like Inspiration4 and Ax-1 and asserted, “The sky is not falling yet.” The issue is how to handle the danger and uncertainty that come with not having a clear path.

Beyond mission permission, there are further regulatory concerns that commercial space station developers must address. According to Gold, the ISS is given priority and waivers to export control laws that commercial space stations will require.

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Commercial space stations might complicate workplace safety measures and related laws. Wagner pointed out that whereas terrestrial companies have annual radiation restrictions, NASA utilises career radiation limits for its astronauts. “If you’re going to develop a cadre of people who are working secretly on a space station, it doesn’t work very well.”

According to Jennifer Fogarty, chief scientific officer for the Translational Research Institute for Space Health at the Baylor College of Medicine, those travelling to commercial space stations as tourists or researchers will anticipate receiving some minimal level of care to assure their safety. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), the division of the Department of Labor that oversees workplace safety, could be too early to get involved, though.

She stated, “I would not advocate for OSHA to play a role in this, but I think there are best practises that come out of it that could develop into something that benefits any of the providers,” adding that businesses will have an incentive to ensure that patrons of commercial stations have a positive experience. “I urge you work extremely hard at that if you want good word of mouth.”

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