Commercial launch industry seeks updates on regulatory reform work

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WASHINGTON — The commercial spaceflight industry expects to learn more this week on the status of regulatory reform efforts as well as progress on improving the integration of launches into the national airspace system.

One part of Space Policy Directive 2, signed by President Trump in May, directs the Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, to review existing commercial launch and reentry regulations and develop proposals for revising them consistent with the policy’s goals to minimize uncertainty and “encourage American leadership in space commerce.”

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, has been working on those reforms with industry and other federal agencies, including the U.S. Air Force and NASA. That effort is on track for the deadline set in SPD-2 of releasing draft rules next February, the acting head of the office said earlier this month.

“We’re undertaking probably the most aggressive rulemaking effort that I can ever recall in my career,” Kelvin Coleman, acting associate administrator for commercial space transportation at FAA, said in an Oct. 10 speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) in Las Cruces, New Mexico. “We’re going to meet that mark.”

That work, Coleman said, includes consolidating and revising four different parts of existing regulations, including separate regulations for expendable and reusable launch vehicles. “We’re going to consolidate those regulations into a single part,” he said. “We’re going to move away from prescriptive, burdensome regulations to a performance-based regime that will allow industry to innovate and come up with solutions as to how they want to comply.”

The FAA established Aviation Rulemaking Committees (ARCs) with industry representatives to help examine how the regulations should be revised. The FAA, he said, has also been in discussions with the Air Force and NASA on how to establish a “single authority” overseeing federal ranges to ensure consistency in regulations, something he said those organizations support.

That’s welcomed by companies that launch, or plan to launch, from federal ranges. “Something the ARC put a great amount of effort into was getting consensus from operators like all of us as to what the recommendations should be for how you regulate vehicles from federal ranges,” said Audrey Powers, deputy general counsel at Blue Origin, during a panel discussion at ISPCS. “We’re really hoping that this [notice of proposed rulemaking] addresses that topic straight-on.”

Those companies, though, hope to get some insights into what the FAA is considering before the draft rules are published next February. One opportunity may be the next meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), scheduled for Oct. 31 and Nov. 1 here.

“One of the things that would be great to see is an opportunity to see some of the movement in this regard before we get to February,” said Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel and senior director for space flight policy at SpaceX, during the ISPCS panel. The COMSTAC meeting, she said, would provide an opportunity for “some kind of update” on that rulemaking effort. “We would all be interested in seeing some kind of earlier rather than later update on the direction that’s going. There is a lot to be accomplished between now and February.”

Another topic related to commercial space transportation is how to better integrate launches and reentries into the national airspace system. That will be the subject of a two-day conference here Oct. 29–30 jointly organized by the FAA and the Air Traffic Control Association.

The aviation industry, in particular commercial airlines, has become concerned about how increasing launch activity affects them given the airspace closures associated with those activities. The recent award of an FAA spaceport license to Colorado Air and Space Port, formerly known as Front Range Airport and located about 10 kilometers from Denver International Airport, has heightened those concerns.

“That raised a lot of red flags to the aviation community” despite the fact that the spaceport is unlikely to host any launches for several years, said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, in a speech at ISPCS. “I don’t think they really understood what Front Range was looking for and what they were applying for and how these spaceport licenses really work.”

Another event attracting attention to airspace issues was SpaceX’s inaugural Falcon Heavy launch in February from the Kennedy Space Center, which resulted in airspace closures for several hours. Stallmer said that about 515 flights were forced to reroute because of that airspace closure, with an average delay per flight of about eight minutes. “To the aviation community, this was just very disruptive to them,” he said.

Stallmer said he served on an ARC discussing airspace issued with many representatives of the aviation industry. Those discussions started off “acrimoniously,” he said, but improved over time. “The process that we had was to educate each other on what we’re doing,” he said. For example, he said he had to explain why, because of orbital mechanics, the spaceflight industry couldn’t limit its launches to times like late at night when there were few aircraft flying.

“We really have come together,” he said, with another ARC developing recommendations on airspace integration. “We are working very closely with the aviation community on how we reshape and restructure how we do business.”

Coleman said AST was working on technological solutions to give air traffic controllers more precise information on launch and reentry activities, minimizing the size and duration of airspace closures. “This will allow more launches to take place with less impact on other users” of the national airspace system, he said.

Stallmer said that, in his discussions with aviation industry officials, they found some common ground. “It turns out they’re all space geeks,” he said. “They really like what we’re doing.”