FAA offers National Space Council ideas for launch licensing reforms

by

HOUSTON — The Federal Aviation Administration submitted to the National Space Council a set of regulatory reforms that one official said would create a “21st century licensing process” for commercial spaceflight.

The proposed changes, intended to streamline licensing of expendable and reusable launch vehicles, were submitted to the Council as one of the 45-day reports requested by its chairman, Vice President Mike Pence, at its first meeting Oct. 5.

“What we turned in was a list of ideas that we had identified as things that might be helpful in terms of regulatory streamlining,” said George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, during a panel discussion about commercial space policy at the SpaceCom Expo here Dec. 5.

At that inaugural National Space Council meeting, Pence instructed the Secretaries of Commerce and Transportation, along with the Director of the Office of Management and Budget, to conduct a “full review of our regulatory framework for commercial space” to identify potential reforms to streamline operations.

Nield said his office had already been studying ways to improve its processes. “Nobody had to twist our arms on this,” he said. “We’ve been trying to decrease the regulatory burden on everybody, both the government and the industry.” That included regular discussions with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation industry group and reviewing white papers submitted by companies such as SpaceX.

“We were given 45 days to put some of these forward to the National Space Council,” he said. There was no requirement for the FAA to coordinate its response with other agencies, something that will be done at the Council level.

“We came up with our vision for a 21st century licensing process,” he said. That process, he said, could include licenses that cover different versions of a family of vehicles, launching from different sites on different missions, “on the same piece of paper.”

Nield said other elements of that vision include “performance-based” regulations that don’t limit companies on how they can achieve a certain requirement, as well as ways to accelerate the license review process, which can take up to 180 days once a completed application is submitted.

Some of those changes, Nield said, may take longer to carry our, particularly when they involve issues like environmental reviews. He said the FAA is looking at other near-term streamlining approaches, such as the use of a mechanism called “safety approvals” that provides pre-approval of subsystems or processes — and potentially entire launch vehicles — to speed the license review process.

Nield also put in a request for additional staff for his office, which currently has about 100 people. “If we had some additional folks that could look at fixing the process rather than just having everybody having their head down cranking out these licenses, then we could make a significant improvement” in the license review process, he said.

Earlier in the panel discussion, Nield also discussed the issue of oversight of “non-traditional” commercial space applications, ranging from satellite servicing to lunar missions, for which no current U.S. government agency has oversight responsibility. Article 6 of the Outer Space Treaty requires governments to provide authorization and continuing supervision of such activities.

Nield, as he has done in the past, has suggested his office would be well-suited to that work, modeling it on the payload reviews it already does as part of the commercial launch licensing process. “We want to be able to say yes to these companies,” he said. If that issue isn’t resolved in the near future, he warned, “U.S. companies that are concerned about the regulatory uncertainty on this issue are going to go to other places, like the U.K. or Luxembourg.”