House offers increase to FAA commercial space office

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WASHINGTON — A spending bill to be marked up by House appropriators July 11 would provide a significant increase to the office responsible for licensing commercial launches, counteracting a planned cut.

The draft of the transportation, housing and urban development appropriations bill, released by the House Appropriations Committee July 10, would give the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) $21.587 million in fiscal year 2018. The bill will be marked up by an appropriations subcommittee July 11.

The House bill offers an increase of more than $1.7 million over what AST received in the final fiscal year 2017 omnibus spending bill, which provided $19.826 million for the office. That 2017 figure was, in turn, an increase of $2 million over the office’s 2016 budget.

The House bill rejects the administration’s request for 2018, which proposed $17.9 million for the office. That would have brought the office back down to its 2016 budget.

AST officials have requested larger budgets to help the office deal with a growing level of commercial launch and regulatory activity. AST is responsible for licensing commercial launches and reentries, as well as associated safety reviews. The office also has a mandate to encourage, facilitate and promote the commercial space transportation industry in the United States.

Since the current fiscal year began on Oct. 1, 2016, AST has licensed 15 commercial launches, according to statistics maintained on the office’s website. That total includes 10 launches of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 and three United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 launches. The office also licensed an Orbital ATK Antares launch and the first launch of Electron, a small launch vehicle developed by U.S.-New Zealand company Rocket Lab.

The office also issues experimental permits for test flights of reusable suborbital vehicles. The most recent permitted launch was the latest test flight of Blue Origin’s New Shepard vehicle last October. Test flights of that vehicle are anticipated to resume later this year.

In a February speech, George Nield, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said he predicted that between 36 and 43 launches and reentries would require licenses of permits from his office in fiscal year 2017, more than double the number in 2016. “That could double again in 2018,” he added.

That growth in the commercial space launch industry — long predicted but only now materializing — has led advocates of the industry to push for budget increases for AST to avoid delays in processing license and permit applications.

Among the office’s backers is Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who requested the office receive $23 million when he testified before House appropriators in March. Such an increase in necessary “to make sure they are adequately funded for all the upcoming launches,” said Bridenstine, an advocate for commercial and government space issues and a long-running candidate to become the next administrator of NASA.