Commercial Space Travel Rules of the Road

The FAA is beginning to look past domestic skies, planning ahead for what may be coming down the space highway over the next few years.

THE GIST

The FAA is planning to oversee new commercial space passenger travel.

The agency is looking at tracking space traffic, orbital debris avoidance and other issues.

NASA's plans to switch to commercial providers to fly crews to space station should stimulate the industry.

Fast-forward 10 years and in addition to flying cars and unmanned aircraft, there are suborbital rocket rides launching from New Mexico, astronauts getting ready for a taxi ride to the space station, and people living in privately owned outposts in orbit.

That's the future showing up on FAA radars as the agency prepares for commercial space travel.

The agency is working on its first license for a spacecraft to re-enter Earth's atmosphere. Space Exploration Technologies, or SpaceX, wants to test-fly its Dragon capsule later this month.

It's just the beginning of what may be coming down the space highway over the next few years, particularly as NASA gears up programs to stimulate the fledgling commercial orbital spaceflight industry.

With the space shuttles retiring next year, NASA needs transportation services to get astronauts to and from the International Space Station. Until U.S. firms are up for the job, Russia will have a monopoly on ferry flights to the station, a service that costs U.S. taxpayers $51 million a seat.

SpaceX figures it can do the job for less than half that price, and it is just one of several companies interested in the work.

"What we hope is that it will be like when you go buy an airplane ticket. You need an airplane ticket to ride? We're looking for a spaceship to go ride," said Ed Mango, program planning manager for NASA's commercial crew initiative at the Kennedy Space Center.

Another startup, Bigelow Aerospace, is planning to lease out a fleet of privately owned space habitats and is partnering with Boeing to get its clients to and from orbit.

There's also suborbital space travel on the horizon, such as the tourism and research flights being sold by Richard Branson's Virgin Galactic. Test flights of the spaceship are under way, with passenger travel expected to start in late 2011 or 2012.

Figuring out the ground rules for operating in space falls on the FAA. Unlike NASA, the FAA is a regulatory agency, with powers to license, police and punish offenders. For commercial space, the FAA has an additional role as promoter.

"We're seeing some big changes in the next few years," George Neild, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space, told Discovery News.

The agency is gearing up for the new world of commercial space with a research consortium, headed by New Mexico State University, that will focus on four areas: space launch operations and traffic management; launch vehicle systems, payloads, technologies and operations; commercial human spaceflight; and space commerce, including space law, space insurance, space policy and space regulation.

Partners in the project include Stanford University, Florida Institute of Technology, New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology, Florida State University, the University of Colorado at Boulder, and the University of Texas.

The FAA also plans to set up a technical operations center at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida if Congress approves funding. In preparation for the shutdown of the shuttle program next year, NASA plans to revamp the spaceport to serve a variety of commercial and government users in the future.

"The spaceport of the future is not your father's spaceport," center development manager Jim Ball told Discovery News. "It's a spaceport of multiple launch systems operated maybe by government, maybe commercially, and we need to be in a position to support those."