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Interview: Laura Montgomery

Laura Montgomery is the Federal Aviation Administration’s Senior Attorney for Commercial Space Transportation. She supports the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, the FAA’s line of business that regulates the commercial space transportation industry. Laura Montgomery’s work at the FAA includes the development and application of regulations, legislative issues, and enforcement matters. Her rulemakings include the FAA rules for human space flight and experimental permits. Before coming to the government, Ms. Montgomery was in private practice with Arter & Hadden in Washington, DC, where she specialized in telecommunications, administrative law and appellate work. She received her law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1987, and her undergraduate degree with honors from the University of Virginia in 1983.

Res Communis: Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today.  What is your formal title?”

Montgomery:   Senior Attorney for Commercial Space Transportation

Res Communis:     Would you consider yourself a space law lawyer?

Montgomery: Yes, definitely.

Res Communis: What does that mean to you?

Montgomery: I practice space law and, in my case, the law concerns the regulation of  rockets.

Res Communis: Please give us an example of the kinds of things you do on a day-to-day basis.

Montgomery: I am a general practitioner in the space law area. I work on licensing issues; review licensing evaluations for legal sufficiency; and, address enforcement issues. I am involved in lots of rulemakings and have worked on many over the years. I’ve worked on legislative issues. Long ago, I testified to Congress once on how the agency construes its statute, and I get involved in international issues that affect the FAA.

Res Communis. So, as an attorney, would you consider yourself to be a transactional lawyer, a regulator, or litigator?  Where on that spectrum?

Montgomery: I am a regulator.

Res Communis. What does a regulator do?

Montgomery: Administer and enforce the FAA’s regulations.

Res Communis. What is the most interesting thing about that work?

Montgomery: Getting to work with space issues. That is the most interesting thing for me. I love to see people coming in with new proposals, and I love being so deeply involved in new and exciting things like the recent SpaceX Dragon reentry.  That was very exciting. We issued  two waivers for that, and they were published in Federal Register. As a lawyer you can participate in some of the most cutting edge work from the legal side.

Res Communis. Tell us about that waiver. What did it involve as a matter of law? Where was your starting point? How was the decision made to make a waiver and what did the waiver make possible?

Montgomery: If I may take one of the waivers as an example, the regulations require that a licensee satisfy quantified risk numbers. The way our reentry rules are set-up there is a cap on the combined risk of launch and reentry. It looked like SpaceX’s reentry would lead the mission to exceed the cap, so we had to determine if that would be permissible and whether we should waive the regulations. There is a lot of work involved in figuring out what’s going on; whether a waiver is necessary; and, if it is necessary, how it is justified. In the end the waivers were granted for the reasons provided in the published notice. And, as everybody knows, Dragon came in safely.

Res Communis. Now prior to doing your current work, did you do space law anywhere else?  What was your path into space law?

Montgomery: My path into space law probably started with reading The Moon is a Harsh Mistress when I was thirteen. I read a lot of science fiction in my youth, and halfway through college I realized I wasn’t going to be able to work for NASA unless I did something other than graduate with a philosophy degree, which is what I was getting. I decided law school would be a good way to use my writing and analytical skills, so I went to law school hoping I would be able to get into space law. I took administrative law and international law and when I came out, I managed to land a job with a firm that did a lot of administrative law. One of the partners had a satellite client, which was very appealing.  At Arter & Hadden I worked on telecommunications issues, including some satellite work.  Then, with administrative law experience and the satellite work, I landed my current job with the FAA.

Res Communis. What did you do at the firm regarding satellite work? Licensing work?

Montgomery: Yes. I was also involved in other areas, in rulemakings in front of the FCC.  At one point, we handled an interesting opposition to the proposed relocation of a satellite used by one of our clients.

Res Communis. If a young law school student came to you today and said, “I’d like to do what you do and I want to be a space lawyer.” What is your best advice for that student?

Montgomery: I would strongly encourage them to take administrative law in law school and try summer jobs, internships, or clerkships in the field. There are companies that do this kind of work.

Res Communis. From your vantage point in the FAA, where do you see space law going? Where do you think the next new vista or challenges are going to be?

Montgomery: Well, our immediate challenge is reentry because the Dragon reentry was the very first one we licensed and there are going to be more.  It’s one thing to write regulations.  It’s another to apply them, and I’m sure we will face new challenges as the private sector develops new technologies and skills.

Res Communis. How about orbital licensing? Is there anything coming up with that in the future?

Montgomery: That would be for Congress to say. We do not have that authority. That was made very clear in the Committee report accompanying the passage of our reentry legislation.

Res Communis. So you work with the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act of 2004 a lot?

Montgomery: Yes. We have done rule making under that law. There were two rules: the Human Space Flight Rule and the Experimental Permit Rule.

Res Communis. Were you involved in the definition of a “rocket” for the purpose of that legislation? The definition is a vehicle that has more thrust than lift for more than half of its ascent.

Montgomery: For the majority of the rocket powered portion of its flight.

Res Communis. Why it was important to create a definition that was so precisely technical?

Montgomery: Before the 2004 amendments were passed the question was whether a vehicle was an aircraft or a launch vehicle when it had wings and a rocket engine.  What kind of craft is it? The answer to that determined which legislation it would fall under: the Federal Aviation Act or the Commercial Space Launch Act.  That’s why we needed to be very, very clear about the definition.

Res Communis: So, as a philosophy major, how did you learn your engineering?

Montgomery: That might be an overstatement, but any lawyer has to know her facts. If you litigate a slip and fall case you need to know where the mop was. If you do space law at the FAA you have to learn all about the destruct system; the command receiver decoder; the shake, rattle, and roll test. You pick it up over time.

Res Communis: The analogy I give my students is that if you were to go into medical malpractice law you have to learn enough medicine to be able to serve clients and to know when it is time to call in a doctor as an expert.

Montgomery: Right.

Res Communis: So, you have to know enough engineering as a lawyer for space law to be able to apply the law but then know when to bring in an engineering expert to give you the information you need.

Montgomery: That’s very true.

Res Communis: Does your office call in engineers as experts to do that kind of technical background?

Montgomery: My client is the Office of Commercial Space Transportation. It is full of engineers, and they are the ones who evaluate applications.  They are also usually the people who know when they need their rules changed and why.  We then work together on the rules.  No pun intended, but no one is working in a vacuum.

Res Communis.: Can you give us an example of when one of your engineering colleagues brought a technical issue to your attention that the law didn’t address adequately?

Montgomery: The teamwork between the lawyer and engineer is most evident in rule making. An engineer may want to accomplish certain goals and the lawyer has to assist in making the requirements work. Sometimes the simplest and most routine drafting issues unearth more information. For example, lots of people draft requirements in the plural:  “Destruct systems must work thusly.”  If I added an “all” to the beginning of the sentence or made it singular, I would sometimes be told, they didn’t mean all—there were exceptions to the rule.  So I would say, let’s write down the exception. Sometimes it is just a drafting fix that leads you to questions you didn’t even know to ask. As you try to get more precise, you learn that there is more to write than you thought because you have to include the new ¬information they have in their brains but which has not been reduced to paper.

Res Communis. That is a great example. Would you recommend a law student to do some reading on aerospace engineering?

Montgomery: It could help, but you learn it where you need it.  My first exposure to a lot of the engineering aspects related to the proper way to destroy a rocket, not how a rocket works, because the safety rules for expendable launch vehicles address keeping the rocket away from populated areas.   This is a safety agency and you destroy the rocket if it goes off course.

Res Communis. For clarification, we are talking about range safety issues, absolutely one of the most important parts of what has to be planned. Is there anything else you would like to add to make the interview complete?

Montgomery: Just my usual point that everyone should take administrative law.

Res Communis: That is what I tell my students. It is absolutely critical. Even if they want to go in the private sector, they need to know administrative law. Thank you for a very informative interview.

Montgomery: You are most welcome.