Suborbital RLV Permit Rules

Never a dull moment at FAA/AST. It's been less than two months since the Human Space Flight Requirements for Crew and Space Flight Participants went into effect (Feb. 13, 2007) and, now, as I noted Friday, FAA/AST has issued the final regs covering Experimental Permits for Reusable Suborbital Rockets. (14 CFR Parts 401, 404, 405, 406, 413, 415, 420, 431, and 437)

This rulemaking, which become effective June 5, 2007, sets forth requirements for operators of suborbital RLV's seeking experimental permits. And yes, this includes manned and unmanned reusable rockets. The rule also covers operating requirements and restrictions on launch and reentry of suborbital RLVs operated under a permit. Fun fun fun.

Taken together, the two companion sets of regulations -- covering crew and space flight participants, and now, experimental permits -- implement requirements of the
Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004.

As with the first big rulemaking, in promulgating these permitting regs, Patti Smith and her crew of pro-space, public safety-obsessed regulators listened closely to comments submitted in response to the NPRM by industry and other interested folks. (Interestingly, by FAA's count, only 12 comments were submitted; these generally "supported" the proposed rule. See my highlights
here. In contrast, for the crew and space flight participants NPRM, FAA recieved comments from 42 entities. As always, everyone who did not comment loved every word of the NPRMs.)

Which rockets may qualify for an experimental permit under this rule? To be eligible, a reusable suborbital rocket may only be flown for the following purposes:
• Research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques,
• Showing compliance with requirements to obtain a license under Chapter 701, or
• Crew training before obtaining a license for the same design. 49 U.S.C. 70105a(d).
And for those just tuning in and don't know what a suborbital rocket is, CSLAA defines it (49 U.S.C. 70102).

(And for those just tuning in and don't know what a suborbital rocket is, CSLAA defines it (49 U.S.C. 70102(19).)

FAA has a quick, down and dirty
overview of the new permit rules, which was already cited online and in the news, and I don't mind poaching from it myself:

- A single experimental permit will cover multiple launch vehicles of a particular design. A permit will allow an unlimited number of launches.

- FAA will identify the type of design changes that may be made to a launch vehicle without invalidating the permit.

- The permit is for one year and renewable following an FAA review.

- Test flights covered by an experimental permit can not be conducted for compensation or for hire.

- The new rules establish criteria for the physical area in which a launch vehicle with an experimental permit can operate. The area, among other things, must be large enough to contain planned trajectories. It cannot contain nor be adjacent to a densely populated area.

- As part of the application for a permit, a vehicle developer will need to provide a program description, a flight test plan, and operational safety documentation, including a hazard analysis and a plan for response to a mishap.

Sensible. Workable. Nothing dramatically different from the NPRM.

And here are some of my scratchy notes regarding selected additional items worth noting:

In agreeing with a comment by Blue Origin re "reentry," FAA now defines launch to end "after reaching apogee if the flight includes a reentry, or otherwise after vehicle landing or impact on Earth and after activities necessary to return the reusable suborbital rocket to a safe condition on the ground." FAA notes, "This definition thus accounts for the two types of suborbital rockets: those that reenter and those that do not."

The FAA could not accommodate Tripoli Rocketry Association's request to make recreation and sporting competition projects eligible for permits.

As to Spaceport Associates' recommendation that FAA re-examine the applicability of FAA space transportation regulations to U.S. citizens or U.S. entities outside the United States, no dice. That's governed by statute. 49 U.S.C. 70104(a)

FAA said the Personal Spaceflight Federation "is correct that reusable suborbital rocket operators and developers will not be required to obtain an experimental airworthiness certificate to obtain a permit or license. However, an operator cannot fly under a permit or license unless its vehicle is a reusable suborbital rocket or otherwise subject to Chapter 701....If an operator plans to fly its vehicle as a suborbital rocket, the operator must fly it in accordance with the requirements of an experimental permit or license." And a "permit is not a prerequisite for a license. Nonetheless, data obtained while operating under a permit may be useful in applying for a license."

The requirements make distinctions between manned and unmanned vehicles. Part 437 of 14 CFR applies whether a vehicle is manned or unmanned. If a person is on board a permitted vehicle, 14 CFR part 461 contains added requirements.

The duration of an experimental permit does not need to be longer than one year (as suggested by Spaceport Associates and Blue Origin) because a permittee may obtain a renewal. If the permittee has been operating in compliance with the regulations and terms and conditions of its permit, it should not be difficult to obtain a renewal. To avoid any disruption to the schedule, a permittee should apply for renewal at least 60 days before its permit expires, in accordance with 14 CFR 413.23.

An applicant for a permit may rely on a safety approval obtained under part 414.

As to inspection, FAA has decided against Blue Origin’s recommended that the FAA conduct this inspection before flight rather than before issuing a permit because a determination on the safety of the vehicle is difficult to make before the safety systems have been built and verified. Also, the FAA will inspect the vehicle to ensure compliance with application representations.

Slight change under program description, § 437.23(b)(1): "any" systems rather than "all" systems (structural, flight control, thermal, pneumatic, hydraulic, propulsion, electrical, environmental control, software and computing, systems, avionics, guidance) since FAA recognizes not all vehicles will have all systems.

FAA agrees that the description required for any system is a general overview or basic description of the system. However, when showing compliance with the containment requirements of § 437.31, an applicant will need to provide a more detailed description.

Also requires a description of "software and computing systems," rather than just software systems as proposed in the NPRM.

Clarification of §437.25(a) flight test plan - for each operating area, an applicant must also provide the maximum altitude it expects the reusable suborbital rocket to reach.

Whoops. XCOR found a typo in § 437.51 FAA should have said "or," not "and." ;)

FAA will further study the comments raised by ALPA on rest requirements.

In response to Masten's comments, FAA notes a permit is not required for operations between flights. Under § 437.53, "pre-flight" operation begins when a permittee prepares a reusable suborbital rocket for flight and "post-flight" operation ends when a permittee returns the reusable suborbital rocket to a safe condition after flight.

FAA clarifies the hazard analysis required by § 437.55. The applicant must analyze the risk of each hazard before identifying measures to mitigate or eliminate that risk. (See discussion, p. 177005)

Operating area containment - FAA has clarified § 437.57(b)(3) and (4); § 437.57(b)(3)

FAA agrees with XCOR that publication on the agency's web site of approved experimental permit operating areas may invite undesirable attention, however it is important to inform the public of potential hazardous operations so that they can be aware of potential hazards.

Noting the Federation and XCOR's input, for now FAA will define "unpopulated," "sparsely populated," and "densely populated" areas for purposes of determining an acceptable operating area on a case-by-case basis.

Most commenters agreed with not requiring a permittee to meet quantitative risk criteria. The FAA agrees with XCOR that performing valid quantitative risk analyses should be encouraged, even if these analyses are not required to obtain a permit.

"Key flight-safety event" means a permitted flight activity that has an increased likelihood of causing a launch accident compared with other portions of flight. In the NPRM, the FAA proposed a similar definition, but referred to "failure" instead of "launch accident," which is already defined by § 401.5.

Landing and Impact Locations, § 437.61 is clarified per XCOR and the Federation's concerns. The landing or impact location, not the whole launch site, has to be clear of members of the public.

§ 437.63 Agreements With Other Entities Involved in a Launch or Reentry - FAA clarifies and adopts a narrower version than in the NPRM.

Tracking a Reusable Suborbital Rocket - under § 437.67, a permittee must, during permitted flight, measure in real time the position and velocity of its reusable suborbital rocket. This is a change from the NPRM, which proposed that a permittee provide Air Traffic Control with the ability to know the real time position and velocity of the reusable suborbital rocket while operating in the National Airspace System.

Section 437.71 flight rules - one change: the agreement with the responsible Air Traffic Control authority required by § 437.63 should include any need for prior authorization.

FAA clarifyies the anomaly reporting requirements of § 437.73.

Allowable Design Changes; Modification of an Experimental Permit Section 437.85(a) includes the rocket not just the motor.

Pre-Flight Reporting § 437.89 - FAA does entertain requests for waivers to its timing requirements, but any flexibility in that regard will depend on the availability of USSTRATCOM resources.

As to the for-hire prohibition, Section 437.91, FAA is bound by the CSLAA and unable to make exception for inert payloads such as souvenirs and trinkets; sale of images from onboard still or video cameras would violate § 437.91; sale of a used rocket part would not violate § 437.91 if the rocket part was not carried on board for compensation or hire; selling used propellant tank insulation that has been imprinted with post card images is prohibited under § 437.91.

An operator seeking to generate revenue may do so under a license.

The FAA agrees with XCOR that rocket belts, as they currently exist, are not vehicles, thus they are not regulated under Chapter 701.


And that's all I have. But read it yourself.

Happy experimental RLV launching.

And here's to everyone keeping FAA very busy granting lots of cool permits under these reasonable, workable rules.

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IMAGE: courtesy Armadillo Aerospace

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