FAA commercial space office faces budget squeeze

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office is worried that an anticipated budget increase this year, intended to allow it to hire more staff to keep up with a growing industry, may not be enacted.

In a speech at the 20th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here, George Nield, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he was pleased last year when House and Senate versions of a fiscal year 2017 appropriations bill approved a $2 million increase for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), to $19.8 million, included in the overall FAA budget request.

However, those bills did not become law, and the FAA, like most other federal government agencies, is operating through April under a continuing resolution that funds it at its lower fiscal year 2016 level. That creates a problem for AST, which has already hired additional staff in anticipation of that increase.

“Based on the hope that we would be able to have an increased budget, we did go ahead and hire 19 additional folks,” Nield said. Without the increase, “we’re really scrambling right now to make ends meet.”

Personnel costs account for the vast majority of AST’s budget. “Basically, 90 percent plus of the money we get goes to salaries and benefits for our people,” Nield said, with much of the rest allocated to travel so that staff can perform safety inspections at facilities around the country.

Nield didn’t indicate what would happen if the budget increase did not come through, a possibility if the current continuing resolution is extended through the end of the 2017 fiscal year. Congressional appropriators are working on new versions of 2017 spending bills, but those have not been introduced, and could be changed depending on priorities of the new Congress and the Trump administration.

The increase in budget and staff, both Nield and industry advocates have argued, is needed to keep pace with a growing industry. He noted that, in fiscal year 2016, there were 17 launches and reentries that required an FAA launch license or experimental permit. “We’ll probably see about double that — between 36 and 43 — this year,” Nield said. “That could double again in 2018.”

With that increase in launch activity comes a related increase in applications as well as consultations with companies that could lead to applications. Nield said that, as of this month, AST was tracking 74 separate projects that had initial informal discussions with the office or more formal pre-application consultations, 50 percent higher than 18 months ago.

There has also been a sharp increase in safety inspections by AST, from 56 in fiscal year 2011 to 368 in 2016. “What we’re seeing right now is a bunch of new technology and a bunch of new approaches,” he said, like reusable launch vehicles. “We want to make sure we do it right, and we do it safely.”

This growth in launch and application activity has also brought with it an increase in mishaps. Nield said AST had identified 13 mishaps during fiscal years 2013 through 2016, which include both full-fledged launch accidents and smaller incidents.

“Each one of those required significant resources on our part, overseeing the investigations, trying to find out what happened and why, and what kinds of mitigations or corrective actions are appropriate,” he said. “That takes away from resources for things like launch license applications.”