House Subcommittee Examines Growing Commercial Space Transportation Industry

June 27, 2018

There was no shortage of suggestions for how federal regulators can better accommodate the growing commercial space transportation industry at Tuesday’s hearing of the House Subcommittee on Aviation.

The hearing, called to explore stakeholders’ perspectives on the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) ongoing regulatory reform efforts on commercial space transportation, featured a panel of four industry representatives, one from aviation and three from commercial space. They were Captain Tim Canoll, President of Air Line Pilots Association, International; Audrey Powers, Deputy General Counsel for Blue Origin, LLC; Caryn Schenewerk, Senior Counsel for SpaceX; and Kelly Gareheime, Associate General Counsel for the United Launch Alliance.

It’s a recurring story: how can the federal government strike the right regulatory balance between ensuring safety and allowing a new industry to grow and innovate?

Or, as House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Ranking Member Peter DeFazio (D-OR) asked, “How do you both promote and regulate an industry?”

Subcommittee Chair Frank Lobiondo (R-NJ) summarized the sentiments of the panel and much of the subcommittee, calling for a “more streamlined regulatory approach that reduces complication, duplication, and uncertainty while preserving safety and leveraging the expertise of the space transportation sector.”

The agency in question is the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), which is responsible for the licensing and permitting of commercial space launches, vehicle reentry, and launch sites, as well as ensuring the space industry mitigates the risks posed to person and property on the ground.

(Ed. Note: Speaking of USDOT component agencies and space travel, have you ever noticed the similarities between the USDOT seal and the seal of the Klingon Empire?)

For what it’s worth, the AST has never missed the statutory 180-day deadline for reviewing a license or permit request since the first license was approved in 1989. But with the industry beginning to grow more rapidly (the number of companies seeking authorizations has tripled since 2009, and the number of projects has more than doubled), there’s interest in streamlining processes to make commercial space flight as routine as other modes of transportation.

The clock on finding that regulatory balance is ticking: under President Trump’s Space Policy Directive-2, issued May 24, 2018, the Secretary of Transportation has until Feb. 1, 2019, to review existing regulations and issue a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to revise FAA launch and reentry regulations. The directive also instructs the Secretary to consider requiring a single license for all types of commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations and replace prescriptive regulations with performance-based criteria for all launch types.

The commercial space interests represented at the hearing were onboard with those proposals. Ms. Schenewerk of SpaceX said they would make licensing more efficient for the FAA and for launch operators. She was specifically interested in allowing single licenses for multiple launch sites: she mentioned that SpaceX frequently launches from Cape Canaveral and NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, but must go through a license modification process if they change sites prior to launch—despite the two sites being just miles apart.

Ms. Powers of Blue Origin was particularly interested in the proposal to replace prescriptive regulations with performance-based criteria. She explained that expendable launch vehicles (ELVs)—those used only once—are subject to specific design specifications and other prescriptive regulations that FAA promulgated by codifying Air Force requirements. Reusable launch vehicles (RLVs), on the other hand, have a more open regulatory framework wherein FAA sets a level of safety, and operators have the flexibility to put forward different methods for achieving that level of safety.

“While they are outdated and could be improved,” Ms. Powers said of the performance-based regulatory approach for RLVs, “they are the best approach to regulatory oversight that currently exist. They promote innovation without compromising safety.”

Ms. Schenewerk agreed, saying there is “no reason” ELVs and RLVs need to have different regulatory frameworks and that both can be accommodated by the more flexible performance-based regulatory approach.

Airports and Spaceports: Accommodating vs. Integrating

Another point of interest was in how the growing number of commercial space launches is impacting commercial aviation. As Ranking Member DeFazio noted, “We have the largest and most robust commercial aviation system in the world, and there are potentials for conflicts with spaceports and commercial aviation.”

Currently, commercial space transportation is “accommodated” in the National Airspace System (NAS) rather than integrated, requiring temporary closure of large volumes of airspace during a launch and disrupting commercial aviation traffic through that space.

Ms. Schenewerk explained this “hazard area” as a large box of space moving with the rocket as it launches and later reenters. The length of the box is hundreds of miles long, following the launch trajectory, and the width is based on the potential for “debris promulgation” in the event of an “unintended disassembly”—in other words, if the rocket breaks up during launch, how far the debris might fly.

Both industries agreed that the hazard area is larger than it needs to be – both in terms of the volume of the space that gets closed to air traffic, and the length of time of the closure.

Currently, FAA personnel, including air traffic controllers, must speak by telephone to share spacecraft trajectories and then manually input them into air traffic control systems. This is labor intensive and time consuming, resulting in larger areas of airspace being closed longer than necessary. FAA is currently working on a Space Data Integrator, which will feed commercial spacecraft data into FAA systems and enable more automated airspace releases.

Ms. Schenewerk also proposed better modeling of debris dispersion, based on such factors as weather and air density, to allow for smaller hazard areas, and better data integration through the Space Data Integrator to allow for quicker reopening of the airspace.

“It’s essentially an IT solution,” she said. “It’s modeling capabilities and it’s data integration capabilities.”

Because many of the commercial spaceports are located or planned in close proximity to highly congested airspace or heavily used airports, there’s a potential for more and more air traffic disruption as space launches become more common—meaning these fixes will become more important as time goes by.

Captain Canoll testified that airline flights around Jacksonville and Miami (both near Cape Canaveral) have been forced to fly as many as 23 minutes longer on days with launch activity than on days without. He predicted a “tremendous effect” on commercial aviation if the commercial space transportation industry is not better integrated into the National Airspace System.

One Member seemed less sympathetic to the aviation industry on this topic: Rep. Todd Rokita (R-IN) pressed Captain Canoll on the fact that airlines deal with delays every day due to weather events.

“How is that different from a line of thunderstorms… which you deal with every day?” he asked.

Captain Canoll conceded that point, but added “we don’t have any control over where the thunderstorms are, that’s a force of nature; this is something we can manage together.”

Watch the full hearing and read the witnesses’ written testimonies here.

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