House Appropriators Reject Budget Increase for FAA Commercial Space Office

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WASHINGTON — A House appropriations subcommittee approved a spending bill for the Federal Aviation Administration April 29 that does not include an increase for the FAA’s space office, despite repeated concerns by the office’s leadership that it lacks the resources to keep pace with growing commercial launch activity.

The House Appropriations transportation, housing, and urban development subcommittee approved a $55.3 billion spending bill on a voice vote during a brief markup session. The bill goes to the full committee, which has not yet scheduled its own markup session.

The bill, which funds the FAA among other agencies, includes $16.6 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That is the same amount that the office received for 2015, but $1.5 million less than what the Obama administration requested for fiscal year 2016, which begins Oct. 1.

The primary purpose of the budget increase was to allow the office to hire additional staff. The budget increase included an additional 13 full-time equivalent employees, which would allow the office to expand by 25 people by the end of 2016.

The House’s decision not to increase the office’s budget comes after repeated warnings by the head of the office that, without those increased resources, the FAA will not be able to handle the growing level of commercial launch activity it has regulatory oversight of.

“Our challenge right now is that we’ve had flat budgets over the last several years, and frankly that is not a sustainable situation,” George Nield, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at an April 21 meeting of the National Research Council’s Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board here. He cited the growth in launches carried out under FAA launch licenses or experimental permits, from three in 2012 to 19 in 2014.

“If, for some reason, Congress felt they would not be able to provide that increase, then we’d be in a position where we’re going to need to prioritize what’s on our plate, and do the best that we can to keep up,” he said.

Nield warned that such prioritization could result in delays in processing launch license applications or other oversight work. “That may mean some of the companies won’t be able to have the launch schedules that they’re hoping for, or get a quick turnaround on their licenses,” he said.