Is It Time To ‘Get Real’ about Space Traffic Management?

Published in Space News, March 21, 2012

By Joseph N. Pelton

On a typical day there are about 29,000 commercial air flights in the U.S. and a total of 87,000 private, cargo and commercial flights, according to the National Air Traffic Controllers Association. Worldwide the numbers are less specific but the total of all flights is likely to be well over 200,000 — maybe even a quarter-million each day. The remarkable thing about these air flights is their overall safety — over a billion miles flown per fatality.

But what about the safety of people involved in governmental and military space programs and the newly emerging commercial space industries?

Please note when we talk of “space safety” we are first and foremost thinking about protecting people on the ground and avoiding collisions with aircraft carrying people.

Thousands of people are involved with the manufacture, testing and launch of space vehicles, and now we have the emerging space adventures and increasingly vibrant spaceplane industry — with the real possibility of hypersonic transport that flies in a suborbital arc within the decade. The intersection between the space and the aviation industry will only grow more robust.

Space launches involve the handling and storage of highly combustible and toxic fuels. There are hazards involved in prelaunch, launch, postlaunch and re-entry. One of the little-known facts of the Space Shuttle Columbia disaster was that the returning debris had a calculated probability of about 1 percent of falling pieces hitting an aircraft in the air.

In 2013 we will likely see the start of commercial operations of Virgin Galactic flying rather routinely from the spaceport in New Mexico. Orbital Sciences and Space Exploration Technologies plan to fly cargo missions to the international space station. Robert Bigelow intends to begin commercial operations to fly experiments and people to a private space station. Soon there may be a dozen spaceports licensed to operate commercial flights from a variety of sites from around the world.

The overall conclusion is that a systematic process is increasingly needed to control the interaction between aviation flights, ultralights, unmanned aerial vehicles, high-altitude platforms and launches to space and return flights. If hypersonic flights are added to the mix, the urgency will increase exponentially.

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration (for aviation and commercial space flights), NASA (for civil space flights), the U.S. Department of Defense (for military launches) and the National Transportation Safety Board (for accident investigation) all have some degree of authority in this matter. In Europe, the European Space Agency, the European Aviation Safety Agency, national space agencies and national military organizations also have various responsibilities. Today the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), headquartered in Montreal, has responsibility for coordinating civil aviation safety and establishing standards for aviation and airport safety. The Chicago Convention under which the ICAO operates creates a broad mandate in this regard, and some have argued that the ICAO, under the existing convention, already has the authority to establish a coordinated approach to space and aviation safety standards for not only civil aviation space but for the region extending all the way to low Earth orbit.

Increasingly, as the U.N. Committee on the Peaceful Uses of Outer Space takes up the sustainability of space — including concerns over space debris, space debris mitigation and return of space objects to Earth (including materials with nuclear materials or toxic chemicals aboard) — one must face the fact that the Space Age and commercialization of space raise real safety issues. The safety of launch sites and spaceports and the possible impact of space activities on aviation safety are the prime and most urgent areas of concern. Congress must act this year to update the 2004 Commercial Space Launch Act Amendments (CSLAA) — since certain authorizations and guidelines for the Federal Aviation Administration in regulating the new commercial space industry expire this year. Part of what Congress must consider is increased protection of U.S. citizens on the ground and in the air.

When I was director of the George Washington University Space & Advanced Communications Research Institute, I was part of the U.S. congressional study mandated by the 2004 CSLAA. One of the most controversial parts of the study was whether “space traffic management” was something to be formally addressed and how best to coordinate U.S. policy with the rest of the world in this respect. The recent book “The Need for an Integrated Regulatory Regime for Aviation and Space: ICAO for Space?” — sponsored by the International Association for the Advancement of Space Safety — addresses many of these issues head-on, but consensus is far from clear. In January 2013, the McGill University Institute of Air and Space Law, in cooperation with several other space safety organizations (including ICAO), will hold an in-depth workshop to discuss this subject and consider many key questions that still remain to be answered. These include:

  • What is meant by space traffic management and how does it interface with current international programs for air traffic management and aviation safety?”
  • If standards are developed in this area, how will they be adopted and enforced?
  • Could premature regulatory oversight and constraints negatively impact innovation and costs associated with new commercial space activities?
  • Should ICAO be given the lead to embark on serious discussion of the above questions and to address how best to create improved programs for space situational awareness, and to proceed effectively to create space traffic management on a coordinated international basis?

 

Joseph N. Pelton is president of the International Space Safety Foundation and former dean of the International Space University.

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