Commercial Launch Regulator Moved

The Transportation Department's Office of Commercial Space Transportation's move within the department may make it less responsive, observers say

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the federal agency charged with issuing licenses for private commercial rocket launches and other space forays, is set to make a move within the Department of Transportation's bureaucracy that observers say will make it less responsive to technology developments and less likely to take risks.

On Oct. 1, OCST will become a part of the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency will keep its name, its power to license, and most importantly, a separate line on the FAA appropriations budget, so Congress each year will decide how much money to devote to licensing commercial launches.

The OCST move is the first step in Transportation Secretary Federico Pena's reorganization of the Transportation Department. By 2000, the department's 10 agencies will be consolidated into three, roughly corresponding to land-, air-, and sea-based modes of transport. Under this scheme, OCST seems to fit most naturally into the air regime. But Pena, Federal Aviation Administrator David R. Hinson and OCST Director Frank Weaver are not the first to attempt to couple the new world of outer space regulation to the well-established routines of governing Earth's airspace.

OCST emerged as a "mini-mode" under the Transportation secretary's direct supervision in 1984 only after an attempt two years earlier to place the new agency under FAA's aegis. The then-tiny commercial launch industry, somewhat cowed by the space shuttle's vigorous subsidizing of launch clients, sought a higher profile for the agency to attract more attention, and also expressed concern about whether FAA's entrenched bureaucracy could handle the challenges posed by space delivery's exotic international law and physical principles.

Those same objections are valid now, says Jim Bennett, past president of American Rocket Co. and a member of the government-appointed advisory board set up to steer the development of OCST. By Bennett's lights, it's a mistake to match airspace regulation with outer space regulation, in spite of seeming similarities. "The legal frameworks are totally different," Bennett said, referring to disparities between the overarching U.N. Treaty on Space and the patchwork of bilateral agreements between nations governing airspace. Bennett said the best thing the agency could do in its new home would be to continue on its current trajectory, particularly in regard to its outcome-based regulatory scheme.

That's what OCST plans to do, according to Hinson and agency officials. The agency, after all, will still be overseen ultimately by the Secretary of Transportation as long as FAA remains within the Transportation Department. Furthermore, according to Charles Kline, an OCST spokesperson, the industry's old nightmares about burial beneath a mound of FAA regulations and flight tables no longer have much basis in reality. The private launch industry seems to be doing very well. Technological innovations, such as winged spacecraft, re-entry vehicles, and orbit cruisers launched from airplanes crop up with healthy regularity. NASA is no longer aggressively pitching the space shuttle as a cut-rate commercial launch facility, as it did in the wake of the Challenger explosion, and the threat that the government will hold a fire sale of its expendable launch vehicles, such as Titan, depressing the market for private rockets in the process, is long gone. And, for the first time, the number of private launches will likely exceed government launches.

The industry has strong enough legs to stand on its own without its "mini-modal" status within Transportation Department, Kline said. In addition, there has been "increasing convergence" between FAA regulations and OCST that make a merger make even more sense now than it did in the early 1980s, he contended.

Nevertheless, change might well land upon OCST like a renegade chunk of Skylab. The Republican-dominated Congress will consider in its next session a bill sponsored by the junior Republican senator from Kansas, Nancy Landon Kassebaum, that would break the entire FAA away from the Transportation Department in an attempt to depoliticize the agency.

Furthermore, Rep. Robert Walker, the chairman of the House Science Committee from Pennsylvania, has turned his attention to OCST itself. Walker has floated the idea of eliminating the policy advocacy part of the agency, which would leave the administration commercial space policy in the hands of the Commerce Department's Office of Air and Space Commercialization, a precarious position at best.

Meanwhile, the industry continues to grow, with major projects scheduled for low-Earth orbit in the near- to mid-term. Motorola's Iridium project, TRW's Odyssey, and Loral's Globalstar all seek to exploit the public's seemingly insatiable desire for instantaneous communication. It remains to be seen whether OCST, ensconced in its new location, can continue to help the industry transform LEO into an industrial lion.

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