FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson said Dec. 3 that the FAA's current approach to licensing commercial launches is “quickly becoming impractical” as the number of launches grows. Credit: SpaceNews/Caleb Henry

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has approved a reorganization of the office that oversees commercial launches in a bid to improve its efficiency as the number of launches grows.

During a panel discussion at a U.S. Chamber of Commerce commercial space conference here Dec. 3, Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson formally approved the reorganization of Monteith’s office the night before.

“That will allow us to be more responsive to industry as we move forward,” Monteith said at the conference. Neither Monteith nor Dickson, who spoke at the conference later in the day, offered details about what that reorganization entailed.

The FAA, in a statement to SpaceNews, said that the reorganization creates two new directorates with the office, known in FAA terminology as AST. One is an “operational” directorate responsible for licensing, permitting, safety and compliance. The other will handle other issues, such as policy, research and development, stakeholder outreach, support services and the new Office of Spaceports.

“This reorganization will posture the Office of Commercial Space Transportation for the future by enhancing accountability, productivity, efficiency, effectiveness; and it is good governance,” the FAA stated.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the proposed reorganization during a speech in April at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “The office has performed well to date, but in order to prepare for the future it will be reconstituted under the leadership of General Monteith to maximize the efficiencies of the new streamlined rule,” she said then, a reference to the ongoing revision of commercial launch and reentry regulations.

Monteith, in the conference panel, emphasized the need for his office to be more efficient to deal with a sharp increase in launch activity. “In the last seven years, our licensing activity has increased by about 1,000%,” he said. “We see the potential for that to happen again over the next five years.”

He said he does want to hire more people to handle licensing work, but that approach has limits. “I can’t increase the size of my office by 1,000%, so we’ve got to get more efficient and effective.”

Reorganizing the office is just one step to address that growing launch activity. Monteith also highlighted ongoing work within the FAA, between his office and the Air Traffic Organization, to better integrate commercial spaceflight into the national airspace system. That has become an increasing concern in the commercial aviation industry in particular, who worry about disruptions to flights caused by airspace closures for launches and reentries.

The biggest step, though, remains a revision of commercial launch and reentry regulations. “The pace has picked up to the point where it’s quickly becoming impractical,” Dickson said of the current licensing approach at the conference.

The FAA is continuing to review comments on a draft rule published earlier this year that would streamline the licensing process. “Our commercial space team is carefully reviewing all the input,” Dickson said, “and is working towards publishing a final rule in the fall of 2020.”

Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. He earned a Ph.D. in planetary sciences from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a bachelor’s degree with honors in geophysics and planetary science...