CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla., March 12 (UPI) -- When Wilbur and Orville Wright took to the skies more than 100 years ago with a motorized aircraft, they need not fear lacking a license to fly -- neither did their successors for the next few decades.
Eventually, though, the government stepped in to regulate air traffic to protect the public safety and ensure standards for those making use of this new form of transportation.
Last week, the U.S. government took a crucial step in clearing a path for commercial rocket rides as well.
At first glance, the amendment to the Commercial Space Launch Act, which the House passed by a 402-1 vote, seems little more than bureaucratic fence-building. It stipulates the Federal Aviation Administration's Office of Commercial Space Transportation will be responsible for space launchers, whether designed for suborbital or orbital altitudes.
If Congress had not stepped in to clarify this responsibility, however, the fledging industry would have been in danger of smothering beneath the time-consuming and expensive vehicle certifications the FAA requires for aircraft.
"If you start to regulate a new industry like suborbital spaceflight the same way you do a 100-year-old industry like aviation, it never gets off the ground," said Jim Muncy, a space policy strategist who runs PoliSpace in Washington, D.C., a consulting business.
The legislation also defines, for the first time, a suborbital launch vehicle -- a craft that requires thrust as opposed to lift during powered phases of flight. If a vehicle needs thrust to operate, no matter what it looks like, it is considered a spacecraft and falls under the less-stringent regulations of FAA's commercial space office, which is authorized to regulate the industry, not certify vehicles as space-worthy or air-worthy.
The act, which is expected to be approved by the Senate this year and passed on to President George W. Bush for his signature, also requires government indemnification of the entire commercial space industry to be extended until 2007. Launch companies would be required to purchase insurance before they could fly, but the coverage would be capped and the government would step in to take care of any claims over that amount.
Legislators also authorized a study to assess the best way the government could step out of this role as early as 2008, however.
Most important, the legislation paves the road for the true booster of commercial space: investment.
"I am willing to risk my money on a technical concept and a team of engineers," Dennis Tito, head of Wilshire Associates in Santa Monica, Calif., testified before Congress during hearings for the bill last year.
"I am willing to risk my money on the customers actually showing up," Tito continued. "And I am willing to risk my money competing against other companies in the marketplace. But I am not willing to risk my money on a regulatory question mark, on waiting for the government to decide who can give me permission to get into business, and what the regulatory standards for my business will be."
Tito, who became the first fare-paying tourist in space when he flew aboard a Russian Soyuz rocket on April 30, 2001, for a week's stay at the International Space Station, is considering investing in a company developing a passenger-carrying suborbital spaceship.
"If Congress can reduce the huge regulatory risk faced by potential investors like myself, I believe that within five years we will ignite a revolution in commercial space transportation," Tito said.
"The most effective way to make suborbital flight safe is to allow innovative ideas," said Jeff Greason, chief executive officer of startup XCOR Aerospace of Mojave, Calif. "By resolving regulatory uncertainty, this bill creates an environment that will attract investment to an industry that has the potential to produce quality, high-paying jobs."
The reason why suborbital spaceflight is emerging as an industry is due in part of a private, non-profit advocacy organization called the X Prize Foundation, which will award $10 million and a very large trophy to the first team that develops and flies a manned vehicle to an altitude of 62 miles -- suborbital space -- and back twice within a two-week period. The contest, which has attracted 27 entrants, is due to expire at the end of this year.
The FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation is close to approving its first license for a suborbital manned spaceflight. The legislation authorizes the FAA to issue experimental-class licenses for suborbital rockets. The aviation-side of the FAA has a similar program for experimental aircraft.
"This is about a lot more than 'joy rides' in space, although there's nothing wrong with such an enterprise," said House Science Committee Chairman Sherwood Boehlert, R-N.Y.
"This is about the future of the U.S. aerospace industry. As in most areas of American enterprise, the greatest innovations in aerospace are most likely to come from small entrepreneurs. This is true whether we're talking about launching humans or cargo. And the goal of this bill is to promote robust experimentation, to make sure that entrepreneurs and inventors have the incentives and the capabilities they need to pursue their ideas," said Boehlert.
Irene Mona Klotz covers space and aviation for UPI Science News. E-mail email@example.com