Budget proposal offers big increases for small space offices


WASHINGTON — Three U.S. government offices that deal with commercial space issues, which combined received less than $20 million in 2016, would get large  increase — on a percentage basis, at least — in the proposed fiscal year 2017 budget.

The 2017 budget request, released Feb. 9, proposes $19.8 million for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), an increase of $2 million over what the office received in 2016. That 2016 figure was itself an increase of $1.2 million over 2015.

The office is responsible for licensing commercial launches and reentries, as well as the spaceports that host those activities. In recent years, as commercial launch activity has increased, both the FAA and industry have warned that the office needed more resources in order to keep pace with the growing demands for licenses and safety inspections.

In the FAA’s 2017 budget request, the agency noted that between 2006 and 2014 the “authorization index,” a measure of new launch licenses and permits granted by the office, increased by 550 percent, with safety inspections growing by 825 percent. AST’s staff, though, had increased by only 42 percent during that time.

“The funds in this request are necessary to enable AST to keep pace with the growth of the U.S. commercial space transportation industry,” the FAA stated in the budget request.

The increased funding would be used primarily to hire employees. The proposal calls for hiring 13 additional people in 2017, bringing the office’s staff to 119. That is on top of a planned increase of more than 20 people in 2016. The staff hired in 2017 would work on operations, including integrating launches and reentries into the national airspace, as well as other launch licensing and related work.

Industry advocates supported the proposed increase. “Any increase is welcome, but there’s been such a dearth in funding that there’s a lot of ground to make up,” Mike Gold, chairman of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, an industry group that advises AST, said in a Feb. 10 interview.

Gold and others in the industry have pushed to increase AST’s budget in recent years, citing concerns about the workload the office faces given projected increases in both orbital and suborbital launches. “It’s good to see the budget moving in the right direction,” he said. “Hopefully Congress will ensure AST’s resources match its missions.”

Besides the increase in AST’s operations budget, the FAA budget request increases funding for research and development activities coordinated by that office. The 2017 budget proposal offers nearly $3 million for that work, compared to $2 million in 2016.

Of that funding, $1 million would go towards the FAA’s Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, a consortium of universities that performs academic research on various space transportation topics. The rest would support work on topics ranging from vehicle safety technologies to improved methods of incorporating launches into the national airspace system.

Separately, the budget request for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration includes increases for two small space-related organizations. The Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs, which received $1 million in 2016, would get a little more than $2 million in the 2017 proposal. The Office of Space Commerce, which received $600,000 in 2016, would see its budget more than triple to $2 million in the request.

The NOAA budget document notes the increase for the remote sensing office will allow it to carry out “additional compliance oversight responsibilities” for commercial remote sensing systems it licenses. The office has seen a surge in license applications in the last few years, in large part because of proposed constellations of small Earth imaging satellites.

The increase for the Office of Space Commerce, formerly known as the Office of Space Commercialization, will support NOAA’s new commercial space policy that makes the office the “single point of entry” for companies interested in selling satellite data to NOAA. The Commercial Space Launch Competitiveness Act of 2015, which renamed the office, also directs it to support the growth of space commerce and support interagency coordination on space-based position, navigation, and timing issues.