Budget Boost for FAA Commercial Space Office Hits Headwinds

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SAN FRANCISCO — Instead of providing the large funding increase the White House requested in its 2012 budget for the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Office of Commercial Space Transportation, appropriators in the House and Senate are recommending maintaining funding at current levels or even reducing it.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved a bill Sept. 21 that would give the FAA office charged with promoting and regulating commercial space transportation activities the same amount of money the office received in 2010 and 2011, approximately $15 million.

On Sept. 8, the House Appropriations Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies subcommittee included $13 million for the commercial space office in its 2012 budget plan.

FAA officials declined to comment on the bills or their anticipated impact on the FAA’s commercial space activities. “We cannot comment on pending legislation,” FAA spokesman Hank Price said.

When George Nield, FAA associate administrator for space transportation, testified in May before the House Appropriations subcommittee to request a 74 percent boost in the FAA’s 2012 commercial space transportation budget to $26.6 million, he was rebuked by some lawmakers for seeking a large funding hike amid pressures to reduce federal spending. Other lawmakers questioned how the FAA could regulate an industry that has not yet taken shape.

Nield argued, however, that the office would need to expand its budget and hire additional employees to draft the rules and regulations that would guide commercial firms preparing to fly tourists to the edge of space as well as companies developing spacecraft to deliver crew and cargo to the international space station.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is responsible for issuing licenses, permits and safety approvals for launch providers. It is tasked with monitoring commercial space launches and atmospheric re-entry of launch vehicles. In addition, the FAA office licenses U.S. spaceports in California, Florida, Virginia, Alaska, Oklahoma and New Mexico.

In its 2012 budget, the office proposed expanding its staff of 72 people to 103 full-time employees. The budget blueprint also asked for $5 million to establish a Commercial Spaceflight Transportation Center at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “Our goal is to pull together a team of folks that have the right kind of spaceflight hardware and operations expertise to perform research, make intelligent decisions on waiver requests and work with industry to streamline range operations for commercial launches,” Nield said July 28 at the NewSpace conference at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, Calif.

With 2012 funding, the FAA also requested money for a Low Cost Access to Space prize, which would give “$5 million to the first nongovernment team to demonstrate the ability to launch a 1-kilogram cubesat into orbit using a system that has at least one reusable rocket-powered stage,” Nield said.

During the May congressional hearing on the FAA budget, a representative from the U.S. Government Accountability Office (GAO) agreed that the responsibilities of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Office would expand in the coming years as the commercial space firms begin conducting orbital and suborbital flights. Gerald Dillingham, GAO director of physical infrastructure, told lawmakers, however, that the Commercial Space Transportation Office could grow slowly as that business begins to take shape.

Nield told lawmakers in May that his office anticipates dozens of commercial space launches in 2012. In August, NASA announced plans to fly scientific research payloads on seven suborbital launch vehicles in development. Some of those flights are expected to begin in 2011. NASA also plans to pay Space Exploration Technologies of Hawthorne, Calif., and Orbital Science Corp. of Dulles, Va., to begin transporting cargo to the international space station in 2012 as part of the Commercial Resupply Services program.

Before those commercial launches begin, government and industry officials should begin thinking about space traffic management, how to “share information, develop rules of the road and coordinate planned maneuvers,” Nield said July 28. “With the number of space systems in operation today and the amount of orbital debris increasing by the hour, none of us can afford to ignore the threat of a collision or to pretend that an ‘anything goes,’ Wild West-type of environment is in anyone’s best interest.”