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SpaceX is continuing pad tests of its second integrated Starship/Super Heavy vehicle as it awaits an updated FAA launch license. (credit: SpaceX)

The launch industry strains launch licensing

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There is always some degree of tension between companies and regulators in almost any industry. That tension can be healthy as both companies and government agencies seek the right balance between ensuring safety and allowing progress.

There are signs, though, of strains between the launch industry in the United States and its main federal regulator, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. Changes in launch regulations intended to streamline the process may have done the opposite, slowing down licenses as companies seek to expand their launch activities.

“Starship has been ready for its next flight test for more than a month, but we are waiting for an FAA license and accompanying interagency review,” said Gerstenmaier.

At the forefront of those tensions is SpaceX. The company is preparing its Starship vehicle for a second test flight but needs an updated launch license from the FAA to do so. That requires the company to demonstrate to the FAA it has enacted recommendations from a mishap investigation into the first launch in April related to public safety.

The company, in social media posts, has indicated it is ready to go and is waiting on the FAA. “Starship team preparing for additional preflight tests in advance of a full launch rehearsal while continuing to work with the FAA on the Flight 2 license,” the company said on Friday, along with a photo of the full Starship/Super Heavy stack on the pad at its Starbase facility in Texas.

At a hearing last week by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, one SpaceX executive made those frustrations clear. “Starship has been ready for its next flight test for more than a month, but we are waiting for an FAA license and accompanying interagency review,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president for build and flight reliability at SpaceX and a former NASA official who led the agency’s human spaceflight efforts.

He suggested the FAA was perhaps being too zealous in its oversight efforts, hindering SpaceX’s ability to test and iterate rapidly. “AST’s role is to protect public safety, not to ensure success of rocket launches,” he said. “Safe failure and rapid learning are often the fastest path to successful development.”

That had implications, he noted, not just for SpaceX but also for NASA, as a version of Starship will be used as the lunar lander for Artemis 3. In June, Jim Free, NASA’s associate administrator for exploration systems development, told two National Academies committees that the pace of Starship development “gives me concern” about the current official December 2025 date for that mission. “With the difficulties that SpaceX has had, I think that’s really concerning.”

“It’s important that we go fly as soon as we can,” Gerstenmaier said at last week’s hearing. “The hardware is really ready to go fly. When we have regulatory delays, such as we’re facing right now, that slows down developmental test flights and ultimately slows down our support to NASA, slows down our support for what we need to do to return humans back to the surface of the Moon again.”

“A continuous delay in each and every test flight adds up and, eventually, we will lose our lead and we will see China land on the Moon before we do,” he warned.

Gerstenmaier said after the hearing that the company was trying to make the best use of the licensing delay by conducting tests on the pad, including plans for a wet dress rehearsal where the rocket is filled with propellants and goes through a practice countdown. “We get the wet dress for free when we load for launch, but if we’re not going to get the launch license, it’s to our advantage to load now and reduce that risk,” he said.

There are also many other tweaks to the vehicle engineers can perform, but he noted they’re limited by the fact that they have an “unknown timeframe” for getting an updated license. “When we don’t know what the timeframe is, we don’t know how much work to do.”

He said SpaceX has tried to “lean forward” in its preparations for a potential launch, such as issuing maritime notices about potential launches that inevitable excite SpaceX enthusiasts; those notices, he said, require two weeks of advance notice. “I can’t stay in limbo forever.”

The FAA was not among the witnesses at the hearing. In an interview last month, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said his agency and SpaceX were making good progress on working through the 27 public safety recommendations from the mishap report that SpaceX must demonstrate they’ve implemented before the FAA will update the Starship launch license.

“We’re on a pretty good schedule,” he said then. “It’ll probably set us somewhere in mid to late October for conclusion of the safety review.”

“Recent changes to the FAA regulations have not resulted in streamlined licensing reviews,” Schenewerk said. “Instead, Part 450 has proven more cumbersome and costly.”

A complicating factor in that effort, though, is a separate review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) about the environmental effects of the new water deluge system SpaceX has installed on the pad. That is designed to prevent the serious pad damage seen in the first launch, but FWS has to examine what impacts that system might have on the environment.

An FWS spokesperson said in September that once is receives the FAA’s “final biological assessment” it has up to 135 days to review it. The FAA delivered that assessment in early October, which means that FWS could take until early next year to complete its review.

“That piece is a little bit of a wild card,” Coleman said, but was optimistic it would not take nearly that long. “We’re hoping that piece will wrap up somewhere in proximity to the safety review.”

450 concerns

SpaceX is not the only company facing challenges with regulations. Other companies have run into problems with a new “streamlined” launch licensing regulation called Part 450, which took effect in 2021. The regulations were a response to calls by industry, with the backing of the Trump Administration through Space Policy Directive 2, to make it easier to demonstrate meeting safety requirements through performance-based standards rather than more prescriptive protocols.

That has not worked out in practice, at least so far. Caryn Schenewerk, president of CS Consulting and a former executive with SpaceX and Relativity Space, noted that only four Part 450 launch licenses have been issued to date, and at least two of them exceeded the 180-day review period by the FAA established in law.

“Recent changes to the FAA regulations have not resulted in streamlined licensing reviews,” she concluded. “Instead, Part 450 has proven more cumbersome and costly.”

“While well-intentioned, the Part 450 effort has not succeeded in accomplishing a streamlined process,” Gerstenmaier noted in his prepared testimony. “AST’s ability to process licenses in a timely fashion has declined rather than improved—indeed, as evidenced by licensing for the handful of applicants under Part 450, approval timelines are not improving.”

Wayne Monteith, former FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said in his testimony that the rush to develop the Part 450 regulations may have contributed to the problems implementing them. “Based on the short development timeline, industry involvement in the regulatory process was severely limited,” he wrote. “Because of this compressed schedule some constructs within Part 450 were not as thoroughly vetted as would have been ideal.”

That’s further complicated by an increase in launch activity that is straining AST’s workforce. “Difficulties in implementing Part 450 regulations only exacerbate this workload,” said Phil Joyce, senior vice president for the New Shepard business unit at Blue Origin.

The problems with Part 450 extend beyond launch to reentries, which are also covered by the regulations. Varda Space Industries has been working with the FAA for months to get a license to return a capsule on its first satellite, launched in June to test technologies for pharmaceutical production in microgravity. That license, the first Part 450 reentry license, has not yet been issued.

Delian Asparouhov, co-founder of Varda, said in an interview last week he could not say if the company would have already gotten a license under the old regulations. The company also has to work with the Utah Test and Training Range to identify when that Air Force-run range can support a capsule landing.

“I feel confident that if there had been 10 previous Part 450 reentry operations, it would have gone much more smoothly,” he said of the licensing process.

Witnesses were unified in their call for additional resources for AST to allow them to hire more staff. Gerstenmaier argued for doubling the budget of AST, currently less than $38 million a year, provided the additional resources go into handling licensing.

“I think the relationship is working pretty well,” the FAA’s Coleman said, “but there’s some challenges, of course that we have to work through from time to time.”

He warned of dire consequences if regulations aren’t approved and more resources allocated to AST. “But, as AST transitions licenses for vehicles previously approved under legacy regulations to Part 450 over the next two years, the entire regulatory system is at risk of collapse,” he wrote in his prepared testimony. “AST’s workload over the next 12-24 months could result in the grounding of U.S. space launch capability if action is not taken immediately.”

Any increase in AST’s budget would be welcome news to Coleman. “The first thing we focus on—and we have a big focus on this during the course of the past year—is really trying to make sure that we have the requisite staff on hand, hiring and bringing the talent pool in that we need in commercial space to keep pace with industry,” he said.

He attributed the issues industry had with Part 450 to “growing pains” of new regulations. “It’s not only challenges on the government side but on the industry side as well,” he said. The transition to Part 450 will last until 2026, when all existing licenses under old regulations have to convert to Part 450 licenses.

“As we get more experienced and as more companies get more experienced, I expect us to really see the full benefits of Part 450 come to the forefront and see some nice gains from that,” he said.

That tension, though, about regulations and the speed of licensing will continue for some time. SpaceX CEO Elon Musk has publicly complained about the slow pace of licensing at the FAA in posts on the social media network X (formerly Twitter) that he acquired last year.

Coleman, though, noted in an interview last month, after those comments, the Musk visited FAA headquarters to discuss Starship licensing, meeting with him and FAA leadership. It was “a good conversation,” he said. “I think the relationship is working pretty well, but there’s some challenges, of course that we have to work through from time to time.”

Even Musk said as much. “In fairness to the FAA, it is rare for them to cause significant delays in launch,” he posted last month. “Overwhelmingly, the responsibility is ours.”

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