FAA probes citizen space race

Lower information technology costs have made it possible for private companies to
develop space programs, a trend that has piqued the interest of the Federal Aviation
Administration.


Patricia Smith, FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said
two commercial space facilities are already operating in the United States and more
private companies are expected to join the space community.


FAA is paying attention because it controls civilian airspace--airspace through which
newly launched space vehicles fly--and it is charged with ensuring that the private space
programs are safe.


To that end, FAA held a conference in Washington recently to gain insight into how to
regulate and support the growing industry.


"The trend is for a private company to build a satellite, launch it, operate it
and then sell time on it," Smith said at the opening of the Commercial Space
Transportation Conference. "That is an increasing trend."


Representatives of private aerospace companies said it no longer costs billions of
dollars to build their own operating systems, hardware platforms and software to launch
space vehicles. Commercially available processors can perform the same functions that
customized systems did in the past. And a lot of today's software can perform during space
missions with little or no modification.


The lower cost of IT and its effect on the commercial space market was evident at the
conference. One panel featured representatives from four new companies already testing
reusable launch vehicles for commercial use. Many others were designing commercial rockets
and space shuttlelike crafts.


Charles Lauer, vice president of Pioneer Rocketplane Corp. of Lakewood, Colo., said his
company's rocket plane--built almost entirely of commercial components--is almost ready
for testing.


Lauer said reusable rocket planes, which take off with nearly empty fuel tanks and fuel
up once they're airborne, would work well for space tourism, global same-day delivery
services and satellite launches.


Other companies claimed their reusable launch vehicles could be ready for full-time
operation by 2000. The designs are varied, but off-the-shelf components were at the heart
of each.


Some are towed like gliders until they reach about 20,000 feet, while others resemble
conventional rocket-mounted craft. One company has already booked passengers on a airliner
designed for cruising in space.


FAA proposed relaxing regulations to help speed the industry along, and Lt. Gen. Lance
Lord, vice commander of the Air Force Space Command, said the United States needs to
maintain its presence in space.


Lord said he expects the private space industry to become a $120 billion business by
2000. But he warned that the Internet and other advanced communications in the digital age
rely on a working satellite network that needs protecting.


"Space is to the information age as oil was to the industrial age," he said.


About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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