Editorial | FAA Office Needs Every Penny It Can Get

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The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has a scope of regulatory responsibilities that have outgrown its budget.

The White House is seeking $18.1 million next year for AST, a $1.5 million increase that will allow the office to staff up by 25 employees, to 106. The increase is necessary, the FAA says, in light of the rapidly increasing number of AST-licensed commercial launches.

The statistics bear that out. In 2014, for example, there were 19 AST-licensed launches, 12 of commercial vehicles and seven of experimental craft. The combined totals for 2013, 2012 and 2011 were 10, nine and three, respectively, according to statistics published by the FAA.

With the uptick in activity comes a greater likelihood of accidents, which also require deployment of AST resources. At the moment, the office is leading an investigation into the Oct. 28 explosion of Orbital ATK’s Antares rocket and supporting the National Transportation Safety Board’s probe of the Oct. 31 fatal crash of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital space tourism vehicle.

George Nield
George Nield. Credit: Moon and Back Media video capture

AST Administrator George Nield has said these investigations have stretched his resources thin.

Meanwhile, in addition to its growing licensing demands — 30 licensed flights are expected in 2015 — the AST faces the task of writing regulations for the nascent suborbital spaceflight industry, whose first passenger-carrying flights could begin late this year. Although Congress seems likely to extend industry’s current regulatory grace period, which expires in October, by several years, the law grants an exception in cases where a serious accident has occurred. The SpaceShipTwo crash certainly fits the criteria, even if any resulting regulations are restricted to the specifics of that incident.

In summary, the AST is barely treading water on its current budget and its licensing and other regulatory responsibilities are only going to grow as more commercial launchers — Virgin Galactic’s LauncherOne is just one of many that comes to mind — hit the market. The only debate in Congress this year about the agency’s proposed 2016 budget is whether the seemingly modest increase requested by the White House is sufficient.