Senate bill increases funding for FAA commercial space office but seeks regulatory reform

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WASHINGTON — Senate appropriators offered a budget increase to the Federal Aviation Administration office that licenses commercial launches, while also calling on the office to streamline its regulatory processes.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved June 7 a spending bill for the Departments of Transportation and Housing and Urban Development. The appropriations subcommittee responsible for the bill favorably reported it without dissent at a markup two days earlier.

The bill provides $24.981 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. That is an increase of nearly $2.4 million over what AST received in fiscal year 2018, and $3.4 million above the administration’s request. The House offered $24.917 million for AST in a bill approved by the House Appropriations Committee May 23.

The report accompanying the bill noted a record level of commercial launches, but said that AST also needed to become more efficient to deal with that growing activity rather than simply hire more personnel to use existing licensing processes.

“While the Committee anticipates a reasonable expansion of the workforce at the Office of Commercial Space Transportation [AST] to meet increasing volume of license applications,” the report states, “it is essential that AST significantly streamline its licensing approach and regulations so that industry growth doesn’t necessitate one-for-one bureaucratic growth.”

The report added that the office “must fully and effectively execute its statutory missions before allocating resources to non-statutory interests,” activities it did not identify. The report would require AST to brief House and Senate appropriators within 60 days of the enactment of the final version of the bill on employment levels and job functions in the office.

Even before the Senate language, the FAA was working on launch licensing reforms. Space Policy Directive 2, signed by President Trump May 24, directed the Department of Transportation, where the FAA resides, to “rescind or revise” regulations for commercial launches and reentries. That policy was based on recommendations approved by the National Space Council at a Feb. 21 meeting.

Those changes specifically included in the policy involve a single license for a vehicle’s launch or reentry, regardless of location, and replacing “prescriptive requirements” in current regulations with “performance-based criteria” that may be more flexible. The policy calls on the department to publish a notice of proposed rulemaking for those changes no later than Feb. 1.

“We want to streamline our regulations to enable this innovation and this growth to take place,” said Kelvin Coleman, acting associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, during a panel session organized by The Aerospace Corporation here June 8. “We’re working very closely with academia, industry and our government partners to do just that.”

That streamlining, he said, will go much faster than a typical FAA rulemaking process. he said. “This is a significant shift for us as a government regulator. Regulations typically take anywhere between three and five years to work. We’re doing this particular regulation in a significantly shorter time.”

A former FAA lawyer agreed that this represented a major change. “At the FAA, there is a giant bureaucracy in place, and space is a small part of that bureaucracy,” said Laura Montgomery, an attorney now in private practice who previously supported FAA/AST, during a June 7 space law symposium by the American Bar Association’s Forum on Air and Space Law.

Having external factors, like language from Congress or policy directives like SPD-2, can expedite the process, she said. “If the [National Space] Council comes in and says, ‘do it now,’ the FAA has to support it.”

The commercial launch industry has applauded those accelerated regulatory reform efforts. “The space industry tremendously appreciates the help of the National Space Council in setting challenging deadlines for processes,” said Jim Muncy, principal of PoliSpace, at the June 7 forum.

A related issue, Coleman said at the Aerospace Corporation panel, was speeding up reviews of applications for launch licenses and experimental permits. The FAA is required to review license applications within 180 days and permit applications within 120 days of them being considered substantially complete.

“Those timeframes are typically not meeting the demand of business, so we have to deliver those products and services a lot faster,” he said. “We’re placing a big emphasis on keeping pace with business, and that means delivering our licenses and permits faster.”