Seeking the Regulatory High Ground: the International Civil Aviation Organization and Commercial Spaceflight
In 1958, Air Force Chief of Staff Thomas D. White wrote: “For all practical purposes air and space merge, form a continuous and indivisible field of operations.” White later coined the term “aerospace” and used it in a Congressional hearing. Later it was used in policy papers to explain why the U.S. Air Force would also have the responsibility for space issues. (William Burrows, The New Ocean, 248.)
The International Civil Aviation Organization, a specialized agency of the UN, has just made a similar giant leap from air into space. Agence France Press reports that in a March 15 speech at the Second Annual Aerospace Symposium (there’s that word again) co-sponsored by ICAO and the UN Office on Outer Space Affairs (UNOOSA), ICAO Council President Olumuyiwa Benard Aliu said:
The International Civil Aviation Organization “recognizes that sub-orbital and outer space flights will foster new tourism and transport markets, and that investments in related research and development remain at a very healthy level,”…
“Personally, as an engineer, I am very excited to see the dream and theory of normalized space flight now becoming such a tangible reality,” he told an aerospace symposium in Abu Dhabi.
In making its case, the agency noted an uptick in the number of spacecraft designs that have made the leap from concept to reality, saying more will follow.
As SpaceNews put it: ICAO is “spreading its wings into commercial spaceflight.” Thinking holistically about the continuum of air and space activities does make sense. Virgin Galactic’s space planes and SpaceX’s and Blue Origin’s returnable, reusable rockets will have significant activities within the atmosphere as well as in space. And, so, we see domestic and international organizations adapting.
That adaptation is itself an interesting story. ICAO’s mandate is focused on aviation. Its vision statement is to “[a]chieve the sustainable growth of the global civil aviation system.” Even its 2014- 2016 strategic objectives make no mention on of space– or aerospace. However, Agence France Press reports that at the ICAO/ UNOOSA conference, the ICAO leadership stated that:
Rules must be put in place soon to ensure safety and security in space, as well as prevent the creation of a patchwork of regulations by individual states..
The agency suggested adapting the existing regulatory framework for aviation, for which the ICAO and national governments are responsible.
ICAO, as it stands, does not have enforcement authority. It studies, fosters coordination and develops policies and standards.
While there has been a focus on certain potential future space activities, such as asteroid mining, and their relation to the Outer Space Treaty, is there a need for a new treaty covering launches and activities such as space tourism? In the U.S., there seems to be a concern that too much regulation of the space tourism and orbital launch services could stifle the nascent industry. According to R&D:
Both the Federal Aviation Administration and the recently passed commercial-space competitiveness legislation from the U.S. Congress keep their distance from regulating space tourism, “as long as passengers receive explicit warnings about the hazards and the vehicles have basic safeguards,” the Wall Street Journal reported.
And so there are likely two discussions that will be taking place in the coming months. The first will concern the an institutional question: should ICAO become a norm-setter in regards to space activities? The second will address a set of regulatory issues: do we need a new treaty on aerospace activities, space tourism, and launch activities? Could consultation and coordination among national regulators be enough?