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Fri, Oct 08, 2004

Look Out, Burt! Bureaucrats On Yer Six!

Regulators Are About To Descend On Mojave

Okay, the flight's over, the band's been struck and somewhere, a $10 million check from the Ansari X-Prize Foundation is working its way through the banking system. Now what?

Enter the regulators -- and if that sounds like there's a new sheriff in town, well... there is. Several, in fact. From the bowels of the FAA to the Capitol dome, Washington is poised to lower the heavy hand of regulation upon the Mojave Spaceport and all who fly from it.

"Our first concern will be the safety of the uninvolved public, making sure that as this grows and develops that we're doing everything we can to protect the folks on the ground, to make sure that the people who go into space understand the risks," said FAA Administrator Marion Blakey during a visit to the Mojave (CA) airport for Scaled's winning X-Prize attempt Monday. While there, she paid a visit to XCOR, an X-Prize contender and still very much a player in the race to providing tours in space. "It will be a risky business for many years to come, no doubt."

So much for Burt Rutan's concept of "fun."

The fledgeling space tourism industry and federal authorities are talking about how to regulate flights that take Joe Average and his wallet into the black sky beyond Earth's atmosphere.

Among the items that may be targeted for regulation:

  • Limiting g-forces imposed on passengers
  • Availability of safety records to the general public
  • Informed consent on the part of would-be space tourists (are you sure you know what you're getting into?)

"The kind of threshold that we will have to figure out how to achieve," said Patti Grace Smith, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space flight, "is the cognizance issue: How do we know that they understand the risk that they are taking? How do we know that they understand what they're doing?" she said.

So what do you say when the FAA's honchos come a-calling, with the idea of regulating your bread and butter? In the case of XCOR President Jeff Greason, you say, "Yes ma'am."

But Greason was also quick to point out the differences for those who want a wild ride to the top of the sky and those left on the ground below.

"The uninvolved public has to be held to a very high level of safety," he said. "There's no reason they should be exposed to a level of risk that's different than they see from any other aspect of industrial life.

"The involved passenger, the people who are deliberately putting their lives and treasure at risk to open the space frontier they've dreamed of their entire lives, as long as they know what they're getting into, I think they have to be allowed to take that risk."

Even the FAA admits the process of coming up with regulations that everyone can live with will take time. But the clock is ticking and the wonks from Washington are taking notes.

FMI: www.faa.gov

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