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SpaceShipTwo
A video screengrab shows SpaceShipTwo’s wings in their “feathered” position moments before the rocket plane’s breakup on Oct. 31, 2014. (Credit: Virgin Galactic / NTSB)

The recommendations coming out of a federal investigation of last October’s fatal SpaceShipTwo breakup are likely to add to the challenges facing the commercial spaceflight industry – but they could also provide an opportunity to do something about those challenges.

“They gave us some work to do, and we embrace it,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, told GeekWire.

The National Transportation Safety Board’s recommendations, issued at the end of its nine-month probe of the fatal crash, focus at least as much on the Federal Aviation Administration as on Scaled Composites, the California company that was in charge of testing Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane.

One of Scaled’s test pilots, Mike Alsbury, died in the Oct. 31 accident. The other pilot, Pete Siebold, was injured during the breakup but managed to parachute to safety.

Pete Siebold with parachute
A photo taken just after the breakup of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo rocket plane on Oct. 31, 2014, shows pilot Pete Siebold raising his arm as he parachutes to safety. Siebold’s right shoulder was seriously injured during the accident. (Credit: Mark Greenberg / Virgin Galactic)

The NTSB said that a single error by Alsbury – pulling a wing-unlocking lever too soon – caused the accident, and that Scaled should have done more to make the system fail-safe. The board also said federal inspectors should have exercised more oversight over the SpaceShipTwo project. It recommended that the FAA keep a closer eye on spaceship developers in the future. (Check the NTSB’s summary for details.)

FAA spokesman Hank Price told GeekWire that his agency “takes all NTSB recommendations seriously” and would respond within 90 days.

The call for closer coordination highlights a challenge that’s already been a source of concern: Virgin Galactic and other spaceflight companies are accelerating their progress toward the goal of sending paying passengers into outer space, but the federal government isn’t keeping pace.

Here are just a few of the developments expected by the end of the year:

Next year, Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen’s Stratolaunch super-airplane is expected to go into testing, with the aim of launching payloads into orbit soon afterward.

For more than a year, FAA officials have been warning Congress about a paperwork traffic jam – and they’ve called for a $1.5 million increase in the Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s $16.6 million budget. For now, the issue is stuck in legislative limbo, but Stallmer said the NTSB report adds to the evidence showing that the FAA needs a boost.

“Frankly, I think they need to be bigger. I’m all for increasing their budget,” Stallmer said. “They’re consistently being asked to do more with less, and it’s a challenge.”

The NTSB’s findings are also likely to focus attention on the FAA’s big-picture role in regulating vs. supporting a fledgling industry. Past legislation has limited the FAA to ensuring the safety of the “uninvolved public” when it comes to spaceship development, while taking a fly-at-your-own-risk stance toward passengers and crew. Congress is currently debating how much longer that situation should continue. The FAA wants it to end.

Stallmer noted that the FAA has a free hand to respond as necessary to serious incidents like the SpaceShipTwo breakup, Stallmer noted. “If there are areas of safety concern, in the case of SpaceShipTwo, the FAA can come down with regulations,” he said.

But he’d hate to see so many new regulations that innovation is stifled. “We want to foster the growth of this industry, and I believe the FAA is on board with that,” Stallmer said.

The next 90 days should show which way the wind is blowing – not only for Virgin Galactic and SpaceShipTwo, but for the rest of the commercial spaceflight industry as well.

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