Coming Soon to a CFR Near You? Subpart F: Space Transportation

Space has begun a renaissance in recent years, seeing immense commercial interest and investment, development, and progress. With private space stations on the horizon, public tourism, and more, the National Transportation Safety Board has proposed the codification of its investigative procedures for commercial space accidents and incidents. A recent Notice of Proposed Rulemaking published in the recent Federal Register. The NTSB is accepting comments on the proposed rule to add language on procedures for investigations in the Code of Federal Regulations. 

“When the NTSB conducted its first commercial space investigation in the early 1990s, that sector was in its infancy,” said NTSB Chair Jennifer L. Homendy. “As commercial space operations have expanded exponentially since then, it’s become increasingly important that when there is an accident or incident, it’s crystal clear to commercial space operators and industry stakeholders what procedures are in place to ensure the integrity of our safety investigation.”

The industry as it stands could be described as somewhat friendly, similar to the rest of aerospace. Where other industries have some degree of enmity with their regulators, aviators and operators have a vested interest in contributing to safety for the good of all. Recent issues and problems, like the radio communications issues with Virgin Galactic this summer, are often approached with a collaborative, engaged attitude in seeking solutions. For a young segment of the economy, with sparse travel, this system can continue unchanged, but most investors expect a significant, seismic shift in the quantity of travelers and activity above.

Invariably, the resulting incidents and accidents will require more delineated rules for thorough, standardized investigation. Within their notice, the NTSB describes a few incidents from their history in launch and reentry investigations, like the 2014 SpaceShipTwo inflight breakup over Mojave, California. 

The main issue found by the NTSB lies in the actual regulatory code. Currently, there are subparts applicable to every mode of transportation, with specific sections devoted to aviation, highway, rail, pipeline, and marine. In the notice, the NTSB states that commercial space is a unique mode of transportation, and though they retain authority to investigate, they lack detailed procedures in addressing the distinct issues that arise in space. They propose the addition of another, space-specific Subpart F for Title 49 CFR Part 831.