SpaceX’s Starman’s Spacesuit

SpaceX’s entirely thrilling test launch of Falcon Heavy the other day placed a Tesla and its Starman, a test dummy, “otherwise in outer space,” as it says in 51 U.S.C. 50902.  The dummy was wearing a spacesuit, but does the FAA require spacesuits?

The FAA did not require SpaceX’s Starman’s spacesuit (say that three times fast without spitting).  A few reasons apply here.  The first and most obvious, of course, is that Starman is not a human who needs air or proper pressurization.  Even so, FAA regulations do not require pressure suits for space flight participants or even crew.  FAA regulations did apply to the launch of the Falcon Heavy because anyone launching a launch vehicle from the United States needs a launch license.  If you watched the launch you know it was a launch vehicle and it was definitely launched. And how. I wonder if the state of Florida sank just a little.

Hands off the safety of occupants.  When Congress clarified the FAA’s authority over human space flight it forbade the FAA from regulating to protect the safety of persons on board for a certain amount of time, but did not change the FAA’s authority for public safety.  (If there is a death, serious injury, or close call, then and only then may the FAA  issue regulations to protect the people on board.)  The FAA still has to protect the people on the ground from the hazards of launch.

Congress initially divided the people on board into two categories:  crew and space flight participants.  Crew work for the launch operator, that is, the entity that conducts the launch. In this case, SpaceX qualifies as the launch operator.  Space flight participants are what we might normally call “passengers” if they had some expectation of regulatorily mandated safety.  They don’t.  Not yet.  Instead, the law requires launch and reentry operators to tell crew and space flight participants how dangerous the flight is.

Coincidental safety.  Thus, barred from protecting the safety of people on board for their own sake, the FAA had to confront how it would protect the general public from the dangers of launch.  Because the crew may play an instrumental role in keeping the public safe the FAA found it necessary to impose a few requirements for crew safety, not on their own account–which Congress prohibited–but to protect the public.

The requirement relevant to use of a space or pressure suit is the one requiring a launch operator to provide a redundant means of preventing cabin depressurization or preventing incapacitation of the flight crew in the event of loss of cabin pressure.  As the FAA stated when it first proposed the requirement, a launch operator–

would have to provide a redundant means of preventing cabin depressurization or prevent incapacitation of the flight crew in the event of a loss of cabin pressure. If a loss of pressure were to occur, it could have serious physiological effects on the flight crew, including hypoxia, decompression sickness, hypothermia, and vaporization of tissue fluids. This performance standard could be satisfied by different means. For example, in addition to conducting ground tests and prelaunch cabin leak checks, Scaled Composites used dual pane windows, dual seals on cabin pass-throughs, dual door seals, and dual pressurization systems for SpaceShipOne. Use of a pressure suit to prevent incapacitation of the flight crew if there were a loss of cabin pressure could be another means to satisfy this performance standard.

After it received comments from the public on its proposal the FAA emphasized that it would not be requiring pressure suits for space flight participants because the law does not provide the FAA the authority to protect space flight participants absent a death, serious injury or close call.  That prohibition on the FAA regulating for occupant safety remains in effect into the next decade.

Thus, even if Starman had been a real live human traveling to Mars in a convertible as a space flight participant, the FAA would not have required a spacesuit.

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2 thoughts on “SpaceX’s Starman’s Spacesuit

  1. It’s probably a good thing that the FAA can’t require pressure suits but instead there is a redundant system requirement. If future technology makes pressure suits redundant or of minimal value a regulation could leave space travelers inconvenienced for decades to come.

    I can imagine an FAA immediately after the first airplane flights requiring that pilots wear goggles, then seeing 747 pilots walking through airports with their goggles around their necks…

    • Yes, the space side of the FAA, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), has made a real effort over the years to promulgate performance-based standards rather than more prescriptive requirements. This was one of the former.

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