Budget Shortfall Means Paperwork Logjam at FAA Commercial Space Office

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WASHINGTON — The chief U.S. commercial spaceflight regulator said his 75-person office is bound to be overwhelmed by a rising tide of nongovernment launches and experimental space activities, absent a budget increase Congress may not be disposed to grant.

The House Appropriations transportation, housing and urban development subcommittee on May 7 approved a $52 billion spending bill that includes $16 million for the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, in 2015.

That is about $600,000 less than what the White House requested to increase the office’s headcount to 82 and avoid what George Nield, FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, described as an impending paperwork traffic jam at AST, which licenses the launch and re-entry of commercially operated spacecraft, issues experimental permits for nonrevenue test flights, and sets insurance requirements for commercial launch providers.

Nield’s preferred metric for justifying requests for a bigger office is the rising number of commercial launch and re-entry licenses FAA has issued. In 2013, the agency gave out 18 licenses. In 2012, it issued only three, Nield said.

“If the activity level continues to increase and we need to live with the resources that we had, that probably means either prioritizing things or stretching out the schedule,” Nield told SpaceNews in a May 8 interview during the annual meeting here of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).

Roughly translated, according to COMSTAC Chairman Mike Gold, “prioritizing” means AST will be quick to process licenses for companies such as Space Exploration Technologies Corp. and Orbital Sciences Corp., which are hauling cargo to the international space station for NASA under commercially structured contracts, and slower to process licenses for anybody else.

“This cut … would likely force FAA AST into a triage situation where government-related activity is prioritized and all other licenses are forced to wait until personnel and resources become available,” said Gold,  who also heads Washington operations for Bigelow Aerospace, the Las Vegas company developing inflatable space habitats.

As for stretching out the time it takes to grant an experimental permit or launch, AST has legal requirements to contend with.

Under the Commercial Space Launch Act, which was last amended in 2004, AST must review applications for an experimental permit, such as the one used by Scaled Composites of Mojave, California, to test fly Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo, within 120 days of receiving them. Small companies such as Masten Aerospace, which tests reusable rockets in Mojave, also need permits to fly.

Similarly, FAA has 180 days to respond to applications for the launch and re-entry licenses SpaceX and Orbital require for their NASA-funded cargo launches. SpaceX also needs FAA licenses for its commercial satellite launches, as does SeaLaunch, the Russian-led company that launches commercial satellites from the middle of the Pacific Ocean but docks its floating launchpad in Long Beach, California. Virgin Galactic will also need such a license to begin its suborbital space tourism business next year. The New Mexico-based company has already filed with FAA.

As least one AST official is not holding his breath for extra funding to materialize as the 2015 spending bill that contains FAA’s appropriation wends its way through Congress toward U.S. President Barack Obama’s desk.

“It’s fair to say that the cavalry is not on the way,” Michael Romanowski, AST’s director of space integration, told COMSTAC attendees. “We don’t expect to see any additional staffing in 2015.”

Although the U.S. commercial space launch business is not exactly booming by global standards — Arianespace of Europe and International Launch Services of Reston, Virginia, remained the dominant players in 2013 despite SpaceX’s debut on the commercial stage with the launch of SES-8 for fleet operator SES of Luxembourg — it is already enough to put a strain on AST’s human resources, Nield said.

FAA’s licensing scheme is most efficient when launch-day operations are more or less the same for every mission: the same rocket, the same flight path, the same orbit. Rarely do applicants for U.S. commercial space launch licenses submit flight plans conforming to that profile, Nield said.

As an example, Nield cited SpaceX’s flight-day rocket-reusability experiments, in which the Hawthorne, California, company practices some of the maneuvers it would perform to recover the first stage of its Falcon 9 rocket. The company hopes one day to refuel and relaunch recovered rocket stages.

SpaceX has practiced recovery maneuvers twice in the past year, both times over water. In these experiments, Falcon 9’s booster engines relight after stage separation and steer the stage back to sea level for a soft “landing” in the ocean. The second time SpaceX tried the experiment, after the April 18 launch of one of its NASA cargo missions, the company equipped Falcon 9 with never-before-flown deployable landing legs.

Tweaking operations that way “means different work by our flight safety analysts, or our environmental folks or whoever,” Nield said.

In short, more work.