Senate Bill Provides Partial Funding Increase For FAA Commercial Space Office

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WASHINGTON — A Senate appropriations bill approved last week provides a modest increase in funding for the federal office that licenses commercial launches, but industry officials argue that the office requires more funding, particularly after the recent SpaceX launch failure.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a transportation and housing and urban development bill June 25 on a 20–10 vote. The bill, which funds the Federal Aviation Administration among other agencies, includes $17.425 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, the office that regulates commercial launch activities in the United States.

That funding is a partial victory for the FAA. The office, which received $16.6 million in fiscal year 2015, requested $18.1 million for 2016 in order to hire additional personnel to keep up with what it argued was a growing workload of license application review and oversight of launches.

The Senate bill, while not funding the office at the level the administration requested, offers more money than a bill approved by the full House on June 9. The original bill funded the office at its 2015 level of $16.6 million, but during floor debate the House approved an amendment transferring $250,000 from an FAA management account to the office.

While some in the commercial space transportation industry welcome the increase in the Senate bill, they also argue that it is not enough. “The Achilles’ heel of commercial crew and cargo transportation remains the lack of funding for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, which advises the FAA, in a June 28 interview.

Gold said that he was concerned that the FAA’s role in the investigation of the June 28 SpaceX Falcon 9 launch failure would further strain the office’s resources. The FAA is providing oversight of the SpaceX-led investigation, the FAA’s Pam Underwood said at a June 28 briefing at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

The FAA has a similar oversight role in the investigation into the Antares launch failure last October, which has been led by Orbital ATK. It is also supporting the National Transportation Safety Board in its investigation into last October’s SpaceShipTwo crash on a flight carried out under an experimental permit issued by the office.

FAA officials have previously warned that without the increase, the office would be forced to prioritize its work, which could lead to delays in reviews of new launch license and experimental permit applications. “That may mean some of the companies won’t be able to have the launch schedules they’re hoping for and getting that quick turnaround on their licenses,” George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at a meeting here April 21.

Gold argued that the increase requested by the FAA for the office, whose budget is approximately one tenth of one percent of the overall FAA budget of $16 billion, is key to far larger amounts of private investment in commercial space activities. “For the want of $1.5 million, potentially hundreds of millions of dollars of investment in private sector space activities could be delayed,” he said.

The fate of the Senate bill is unclear, as the full Senate has yet to act on any appropriations bills. Gold said he held out hope that at least the Senate’s funding level for the office will survive eventual negotiations between the House and Senate on a final spending bill. “I hope that Congress will see fit to maintain or even increase that number when an omnibus bill is finally drafted,” he said.