FAA commercial space office wins budget increase in House

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WASHINGTON — House appropriators approved an amendment to a spending bill May 24 that adds $1 million to the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office, an increase space industry advocates argue is critical to avoid licensing and other delays.

The amendment, offered by Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee, was included in a package of “technical and noncontroversial changes” that appropriators approved on a voice vote during a markup of its transportation, housing and urban development spending bill.

The amendment transferred $1 million from the FAA’s Office of Finance and Management to its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, raising its budget to $19.826 million. That is the same amount requested by the FAA for the office in its fiscal year 2017 budget request, and also the amount approved by Senate appropriators in a companion bill last month.

FAA plans to use the additional funding, an overall increase of more than $2 million from 2016, to hire additional personnel for the office. Both the FAA and industry officials have argued that without the additional staff, AST might have to delay the review of license and permit applications because it could not keep up of the increased level of commercial space transportation activity.

“Today we have an opportunity to make sure regulatory bottlenecks don’t stifle the growth of the U.S. space industry,” said Kilmer in a statement. “Fully investing in these resources will allow entrepreneurs and companies to innovate and grow their businesses and in the process strengthen our tech economy and the quality jobs it creates.”

Kilmer worked on the amendment with Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who has also argued for increasing AST’s budget. During debate by the full House last year on a similar spending bill, he won approval of an amendment that increased AST’s budget by $250,000. Bridenstine’s American Space Renaissance Act, a wide-ranging space policy bill he introduced in April, sharply increases authorized spending levels for AST through 2021.

“Fostering an environment where commercial space activity can flourish is a high priority. Fully funding the Office of Commercial Space Transportation is integral to this,” Bridenstine said in a statement.

Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), which advises the FAA on space issues, said in a May 24 interview that the increase was important to avoid licensing and related delays for companies, as both suborbital and orbital commercial launch activity increases. “This allows the commercial industry to focus on launches instead of lawyers,” he said.

In a report accompanying the bill released May 23, House appropriators argued that the smaller increase originally offered was enough to allow AST to hire some additional staff. “The Committee believes that the office should be able to judiciously hire critical operational staff within the amounts provided,” the report stated.

Besides funding levels, the report addressed a different policy issue involving AST. It called on the FAA to work with COMSTAC to promote private lunar exploration by dealing with regulatory uncertainties, including creating a definition of “non-interference” as mentioned in international treaties and to refine its payload review process to better support lunar missions.

The report accompanying the separate commerce, justice and science (CJS) spending bill also includes language about private lunar exploration. Citing both commercial and international interest in lunar missions, the report urges NASA to cooperate with those efforts and submit a report summarizing ongoing and planned lunar programs.

The full House Appropriations Committee approved the CJS spending bill May 24, making no major changes to sections dealing with NASA. That bill provides $19.5 billion for NASA in 2017, including significant increases for NASA’s Space Launch System and Orion programs and its planetary sciences division.

Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), ranking member of the CJS subcommittee, introduced an amendment to add $342 million to NASA’s Earth science program, bringing its funding level back up to the administration’s request of $2.03 billion. “I am disappointed that the Earth science funding was so dramatically cut,” he said earlier in the markup.

Honda, though, withdrew the amendment almost immediately after introducing it, as the amendment did not offset the additional Earth science funding elsewhere in the bill and thus would have been considered out of order.