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Falcon 9 launch
The growth of commercial launch and reentry activity had been led by SpaceX, such as with this Falcon 9 launch May 6 from Florida. (credit: SpaceX)

Is it time for space to come out from under the FAA’s wings?

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Spaceflight is not routine in the same way as other modes of transportation, but it is becoming more commonplace. Through less than four and a half months of this year, there have been more than 90 orbital launches worldwide. Commercial launches, predominantly by SpaceX, have driven that growth, far offsetting declines by some other countries and companies.

“Breaking records is becoming routine to all of us,” Coleman said of the pace of commercial spaceflight activity.

That growth in commercial launch activity puts pressure and scrutiny on the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, which licenses and oversees commercial launches and reentries. At an April 23 meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Kelvin Coleman, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, noted the office licensed 117 launches and 7 reentries in 2023. As of the meeting, the office had already licensed 43 launches and 3 reentries to date in 2024.

“If we continue at the current rate, we could see 150 operations this year,” he said, referring to the combination of launches and reentries. AST oversaw 17 operations in March alone, he said, breaking a monthly record of 13 operations set two months earlier. “Breaking records is becoming routine to all of us.”

Breaking records, though, raises concerns in industry about AST breaking down. Last fall, for example, officials with launch companies said at a Senate Commerce Committee hearing they were concerned that AST lacked the resources and processes to keep up with growing demand as companies enter the market and ramp up launch activities. “AST’s workload over the next 12–24 months could result in the grounding of US space launch capability if action is not taken immediately,” warned SpaceX vice president Bill Gerstenmaier (see “The launch industry strains launch licensing”, The Space Review, October 23, 2023).

The FAA is taking steps to address those concerns. In February, Coleman announced at the annual FAA Commercial Space Transportation Conference that the agency would establish a rulemaking committee to examine a new set of launch licensing regulations called Part 450. The regulations took effect in 2021 with the intent of streamlining the launch and reentry licensing process, but many companies have reported running into problems trying to work with them.

The Part 450 regulations, he said at the conference, were “developed pretty quickly, and we are all learning together as we go along. We’ve considered some opportunities, however, to smooth out a few wrinkles and enhance it to better meet its objectives.” He said the committee would start work by the fall to examine the regulations and offer recommendations for improving its implementation, which is critical as all launch companies must move over to Part 450 licenses by March 2026.

The office is working to hire more staff as well. Coleman said at the COMSTAC meeting that AST now has 146 employees with “more good people in the pipeline” to address licensing and related work. “Recruiting, hiring, and training are a top priority for us.”

In its fiscal year 2025 budget proposal, the FAA requested $57.1 million for AST, up 36% from the $42 million it received in 2024. Much of that increase would go towards hiring more workers to deal with the increasing number of license applications and launch activity.

“AST needs additional licensing and permitting evaluators, environmental protection and stakeholder engagement specialists, and safety analysts to double its average annual new authorization determination capacity from 5 to 10 while keeping pace with requests for modifications and renewals,” the FAA stated in its budget documents.

Moving AST out of FAA

Some in industry, while supporting measures like higher budgets and changes to licensing processes, are looking for bigger changes. They see the challenges faced by AST as symptoms of a more fundamental problem: it is a space office located within an aviation agency.

“Space has changed,” Nield said. “The whole environment has changed, and we need to figure out how to deal with that more quickly.”

“I think it’s fair to say that, in the opinion of many people, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation has not always been receiving the time and attention from senior leadership, the resources it needs to carry out its mission, and advocacy and support in resolving key issues in a timely fashion,” said George Nield, a COMSTAC member, at the committee’s April 23 meeting.

He has first-hand experience: he was head of the office for a decade from 2008 to 2018. Within the FAA, AST is so small, with about a third of a percent of the agency’s budget and workforce, that it gets little attention compared to issues like air traffic management and aircraft certification.

That is a problem now as spaceflight activity grows. “Space has changed,” he said. “The whole environment has changed, and we need to figure out how to deal with that more quickly. So that means we need to have somebody at the table, flagging important issues, asking for decisions, getting feedback, and raising other concerns.”

His solution could be filed under “back to the future”: move AST out of the FAA and make it an independent office under the Secretary of Transportation. When the Reagan Administration established the Office of Commercial Space Transportation in 1984, that was where the office was located. In the mid-1990s, though, the Clinton Administration moved the office to the FAA as part of a “reinventing government” initiative.

Doing so, he argued, would elevate space transportation to the same level as other modes of transportation, such as aviation, shipping, roads, and railways. “You’d have access to the cabinet secretary. You’d have a seat at the table. You’d have the ability to more clearly make your case for needed resources and ask for help when there’s important issues to be decided.”

An example is another issue he raised at COMSTAC, support for spaceports. There are federal programs for funding infrastructure for other modes of transportation, he noted, “but today there is no comparable program to provide federal funding for space-related infrastructure, such as for spaceports.”

Spaceports, he said, are not eligible for grants from the FAA’s Airport Improvement Program; spaceports that are also airports can only seek funding for projects that are used for aviation and not exclusively for space. He recommended that the FAA provide significant funding for the existing Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching Grants Program, which is authorized to support spaceport projects but not funded to any meaningful degree.

The idea of moving AST out of the FAA is not new, having been discussed from time to time for many years among industry officials and members of Congress with no action. The prospects of such a move may be improving, though, given the growth of the industry and concerns about the level of attention and resources the office is getting. COMSTAC members, after a brief discussion, unanimously adopted a recommendation for the Secretary of Transportation to move the office out of FAA.

“This is the first time that any government body, and not just a few individual congressmen, have endorsed creating a separate agency for space transportation licensing and promotion,” said Muncy.

Others outside of COMSTAC agreed with the recommendation. Jim Muncy of PoliSpace said after the meeting that the FAA was a good host for the office in its early years but that “as industry started to build up momentum in the 2010s, big FAA wasn’t able to respond with enough attention, resources, and flexibility to meet industry’s needs.” An example, he said, was “FAA resistance” to giving AST resources to develop updated launch licensing regulations until the National Space Council intervened in the Trump Administration, which led to the rushed development of the Part 450 regulations.

What happens next is uncertain. The Secretary of Transportation could move AST out of the FAA and back into a standalone office with a stroke of a pen, in much the same way the office was moved into the FAA nearly 30 years ago. “But, given the importance of this, I think the right approach would be to have Congress weigh in on it, as well as the White House,” Nield said.

One vehicle for doing so would be a commercial space bill. Muncy noted that groups like the Space Frontier Foundation and the Alliance for Space Development included moving AST out of FAA among their taking points during meetings with congressional offices in March, finding “real interest” among member for including such a move in a future bill. However, there is precious little time to get a bill passed this year, given the November elections and other pressing matters.

There are also questions about how much attention an independent Office of Commercial Space Transportation would get from the leadership of the Transportation Department. Industry officials have privately noted that the current leadership of the department, including Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, pay little public attention to commercial space, often with little more than brief, recorded messages at COMSTAC meetings and the FAA’s annual commercial space transportation conference.

When they do talk about space, industry doesn’t always like the message. Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation who was acting FAA administrator for several months last year, appeared to reject calls for increased funding for AST at a COMSTAC meeting last November, suggesting it may be time for the industry to pay user fees or taxes to cover the office’s costs.

“We’re an agency that has the ability to generate revenue and I think that’s going to be a question for this industry,” she said, adding that she was offering her own opinion and not that of the department itself. “Does the industry need to start, frankly, contributing some revenues to solve the funding challenges that AST has?”

(Last month, the New York Times reported that the Biden Administration included a proposal in its fiscal year 2025 budget request to levy taxes on commercial launches to cover the costs of airspace closures. However, Coleman said at the Space Symposium a week after the report that there was no such tax provision in the budget request, only discussions within the FAA about the potential for such a tax in the future, adding that “there’s still a ways to go before we see something concrete in that regard.”)

Muncy said it might be to the benefit of both FAA and the Department of Transportation to move AST out of the FAA. “It is one thing to argue that keeping AST in FAA is bad for space. Now we are seeing that FAA is having trouble carrying out its primary mission of aviation safety,” he said. “If space is a distraction from fixing big FAA, then even Secretary Pete [Buttigieg] might see the value in allowing FAA to focus on its problems, and moving space over to a single-focus agency that can promote industry and protect public safety.”

The benefit of the COMSTAC recommendation, he concluded, is that, in effect, the call for change was coming from inside the house. “This is the first time that any government body, and not just a few individual congressmen, have endorsed creating a separate agency for space transportation licensing and promotion.”

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