U.S. Develops Safety Rules for Unmanned Rocket Launches

August 29, 2006

The Columbia space shuttle accident has prompted the government to come up with new safety rules for unmanned rocket launches.

The Federal Aviation Administration and the Air Force Space Command were to announce the new safety standards for commercial rocket launches last Firday. They’ll take effect in one year.

“It has a lot to do with the Columbia accident,” said Patricia Grace Smith, associate administrator of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation. Smith was referring to the 2003 accident in which the space shuttle shattered on its return to Earth, killing seven astronauts.

The Columbia Accident Investigation Board found that “building and launching rockets is still a very dangerous business, and will continue to be so for the foreseeable future while we gain experience at it.”

The board concluded that formal requirements are essential for public safety.

The rules cover unmanned rockets that are jettisoned into the atmosphere after they use up their fuel. They typically carry satellites into space for communications and scientific purposes. About 180 rockets have been launched commercially in the U.S., and there have been no injuries, Smith said.

The concern, though, is that a rocket could veer off in the wrong direction and explode over a populated area.

There are now six launch sites in the U.S. that serve both government and commercial interests: Florida’s Cape Canaveral; the Kodiak Launch Complex in Alaska; the California Spaceport and the Mojave Spaceport in California; the Oklahoma Spaceport; and the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, also known as the Wallops Flight Facility, on Virginia’s Eastern Shore, according to the FAA.

Unmanned rockets have only been launched from about half those launch sites, according to George Nield, deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation.

The FAA is also reviewing proposals from New Mexico and Texas to be gateways for private space travel, he said.

For years Lockheed Martin Corp. and the Boeing Co. were the only ones that launched commercial satellites.

“It’s not just the big companies that are launching these rockets now,” Nield said. “Companies are talking about launching from other places.”

With the new safety rules, he said, “Even the new folks know exactly what’s expected of them.”


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