FAA commercial space office completes reorganization

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) office responsible for licensing commercial launches and reentries has completed a reorganization announced nearly a year ago intended to improve its efficiency.

In an April 3 memo, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said the reorganization of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, had just been completed as it also works to finalize streamlined launch regulations intended to accommodate a growing number of commercial launches.

“Our reorganization objectives are to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and accountability,” Monteith wrote in the three-page memo. “Most importantly, it will allow us to scale our processes to meet the increased licensing demand over the next several years.”

The new structure for AST creates two main offices, the Office of Operational Safety and the Office of Strategic Management. The safety office is further divided into three divisions, including one that serves as what Monteith described as a “one-stop shop” for license and experimental permit applications, as well as pre-application consultations and waiver requests. A second division is responsible for analyzing flight and system safety, while the third handles compliance oversight and inspections.

The Office of Strategic Management includes one division handling business operations for AST, while another division is responsible for developing regulations and other guidance as well as managing research and outreach. The office will also host the Office of Spaceports, a position established by Congress in a 2018 FAA reauthorization bill to handle licensing and other issues for commercial launch sites.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced plans for an “extensive reorganization” of AST in an April 2018 speech in Florida. She said the reorganization would “maximize the efficiencies of the new streamlined rule” for commercial launch and reentry licensing, but provided few details then about what that reorganization would entail.

Chao, speaking at the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Jan. 29, mentioned the reorganization again. “We have a competitive race going on, and we need to be able to have the right people doing the right things so that our country can benefit,” she said. Monteith, speaking at the same conference, said the reorganization would be completed in the next two months.

The memo didn’t disclose additional details about the reorganization, such as staffing levels for the new offices. “The recent reorganization of the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation ensures the office operates more effectively to better serve the commercial space transportation industry,” the FAA said in a statement responding to SpaceNews questions about the reorganization.

That reorganization is just one of several measures Monteith described in his memo to address growing commercial spaceflight activity. “Since 2012, licensed activities increased 1,000% and AST’s budget and staffing increased roughly 40 percent,” he wrote. “Moreover, we are now looking at another potential increase of 100-500% in commercial launch activity by 2021 while our staff may only increase about 20 percent.”

That effort features continued work on the revised launch and reentry regulations, reviewing extensive public input to a draft rule published a year ago. “This extraordinary effort alone consumes, at any given time, about 20-40 percent of our workload capacity,” he wrote, but said AST remained on schedule to publish a final rule in the fall.

Monteith said AST was also examining ways to streamline its processes. One example he gave was changes to the application process, such as greater use of automation. He said the office has already shown it can be “on console” in its safety oversight role for launches from Cape Canaveral and elsewhere without physically being at the launch site.

Even with the streamlined office, regulations and processes, Monteith said the office will still need to hire additional staff to keep up with the projected growth in commercial launches. The FAA, in its fiscal year budget proposal released in February, sought a 6% increase in AST’s budget primarily to hire nine people. The office currently has 108 employees, the budget proposal stated.

“We cannot accomplish any of the above without continuing to on-board the right people, with the right skills, in the right positions,” Monteith said in the memo after discussing the other efforts to address growing launch activity. That hiring, he said, includes both entry-level and experienced personnel.