Ever wonder how so many private companies are exploring space?

Over the last 20 years, what was formerly known to be exclusive National Aeronautics and Space Administration territory, has evolved into the new commercial space industry consisting of private corporations investing to provide their own space programs for tourism and the expansion of technology.

With differing purposes and goals than NASA, the commercial launch sites, known as spaceports, are unique and are currently lacking safety guidance and consistency. Fortunately, NASA submitted a request to the National Fire Protection Association to explore the possibility of creating a new standard on commercial spaceport construction and operation to provide guidance of facilities used to house, maintain and deploy rockets and other similar vehicles. And this is only the beginning!

Currently there are 12 Federal Aviation Administration-licensed commercial spaceports in the United States. Existing codes and standards were piecemealed together to build and maintain the unique infrastructure that is a spaceport. Think. Spaceports are to space travel as airports are to air travel. These facilities are designed to fuel, store, prep, launch and safely land space vehicles. Interestingly enough, a few of the licensed commercial spaceports were once airports.

Although there are several existing codes and standards specific to airports that contain some information that could be applicable to spaceports, this information is scattered throughout many documents, and spaceports still contain unique hazards that existing airport standards do not address. NASA and Department of Defense documents contain information to fill this gap, but that content is specific to federal sites, and these codes and standards are not publically available.

Fortunately, the National Fire Protection Research Foundation completed a literature review of the fire protection and safety-related codes and standards applicable to commercial spaceports. The NFPA, NASA, International Standards Organization, FAA, United States Air Force and DoD all provide standards that address a wide variety of subjects, including but not limited to: building requirements, launch requirements, risk management, fuel storage and fueling, suppression, emergency response and planning, and training requirements.

For example, NFPA contains a series of standards that mainly address model hobby rockets. ISO standards exist that address spacecraft launch and spaceport operations, but doesn’t cover all safety aspects. The FAA provides a document which addresses launch, re-entry procedures, site requirements and launch operator responsibilities, but leaves the subject of fire safety to the authority having jurisdiction and launch operator.

The AHJ is an organization, office or individual responsible for enforcing the requirements of a code or standard, or for approving equipment, materials, an installation or a procedure. Before the commercial space industry launched, site standards were made by the government that contained requirements specific for government entities to be used by the government, and although these documents could be useful, there is no mechanism for their application and adoption by local AHJs for commercial spaceports.

The existing 12 commercial spaceports have set their own standard or rely heavily on the AHJ to ensure safety. With many of the commercial spaceports located in less populated areas, the AHJ may not have access to the necessary resources or have the experience necessary to evaluate the unique hazards spaceports present.

Fortunately, this past year the NFPA Standards Council approved of a new project to develop requirements for privately operated spaceports. A new technical committee was appointed in August and has been charged with the task of developing a new standard to establish the guidance on the construction and operation of facilities used to house, maintain and deploy rockets (solid and liquid), space planes and other similar craft.  

It also will provide recommendations on static stands used for testing, and the development of rockets and space planes, among others. The synthesis of existing codes and standards, along with the communication with other standard-development organizations and the expertise of the newly appointed technical committee will lay the groundwork for the future of commercial spaceport safety. 

To track the countdown, visit www.nfpa.org/spaceports.