SSO-A Falcon 9 launch
After launching 64 satellites on a dedicated Falcon 9 mission last December, Spaceflight says it plans to take a more flexible approach, launching smaller numbers of satellites at a time on more launches. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration office charged with overseeing commercial space transportation is planning a reorganization that will seek the make the office more efficient, but could mean the end of some of its work promoting the industry.

Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao announced the planned restructuring of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, in an April 24 speech in Florida about the growing commercial space industry, a talk that got little attention outside the state’s Space Coast region.

“Today I’m announcing that the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is undertaking an extensive reorganization,” she said in her prepared remarks. That effort will be led by Wayne Monteith, a retired Air Force general who took over as associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA in January.

“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. That “streamlined rule” is a reference to a notice of proposed rulemaking, formally published April 15, intended to revamp the process for obtaining commercial launch and reentry licenses.

Chao, though, offered few details about what that reorganization will entail. The FAA and Transportation Department’s press offices, when contacted by SpaceNews about those plans, provided only a copy of Chao’s remarks.

Speaking April 30 at a joint meeting of the Space Studies Board and Aeronautics and Space Engineering Board of the National Academies here, Kelvin Coleman, FAA deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said that restructuring is intended to improve the efficiency of the office as it deals with a growing number of license applications from industry but whose workforce that has increased more slowly.

“As we work to restructure our organization, we’ll look to become more efficient in our processes. We’ll look to have a more robust accountability, if you will, for the work that we do across the board,” he said. “We will want to make sure that our organization is aligned appropriately to implement the new rule that we are currently working on.”

The goal of that proposed rule, he said, is to create a “21st century licensing regime” that incorporates industry developments like reusability. That includes an emphasis on “performance-based” regulations that give companies more flexibility in how to achieve a specific safety requirement, rather than prescribing a specific approach. It also allows a single license to cover launches of the same vehicle from multiple sites.

The FAA was directed to develop those revisions as part of Space Policy Directive 2 last May. “This wasn’t an arm-twist for us,” Coleman said. “We recognized that the rules that we had on the books were a bit outdated and did not necessarily meet the needs of an evolving industry.”

While the commercial space industry has supported regulatory reforms that could make it easier and less time-consuming to get licenses, some have criticized the short timeline for making comments. When the FAA published the proposed rule in the Federal Register, it started a 60-day public comment period, although a draft of the proposed rule, 580 pages long, was released by the FAA March 26. Coleman acknowledged the FAA has received requests to extend the comment period, but didn’t state if the agency was considering such an extension.

Another change to AST is the creation of an Office of Spaceports. “It will seek to remove barriers to competitiveness and help ensure that the U.S. leads the world in space infrastructure,” Chao said in her speech.

The FAA was directed to create the office in a reauthorization bill for the agency last year. “We want to look at resiliency, how to make the spaceports more competitive,” Coleman said. The office will be focused primarily on policy issues regarding spaceports, he said, but linked to the part of AST that handles spaceport licensing. The office will be led on an acting basis by Ravi Chaudhary, the director of advanced programs and innovation at AST.

One issue facing spaceports, and the overall commercial launch industry, is integration with the national airspace system. An example of that was Front Range Airport in Colorado, now known as Colorado Air and Space Port after receiving a launch site operator’s license from FAA last year. The site attracted controversy because of its location, only about 10 kilometers from Denver International Airport.

“Our statute does not allow us to consider efficiency in the national airspace system. We only focus on public safety,” Coleman said. The licensing of that spaceport, he said, created concerns about airspace integration, but the FAA was focused only the public safety aspects of launch activities there. That may change in the future, although he noted that could require legislative changes.

One other potential change to AST could end its dual mandate. The office has long been changed with both regulating the commercial space transportation industry in the country as well as helping support it, an activity formally known as “encourage, facilitate and promote” or EFP. That has continued even as the rest of the FAA ended work to promote the aviation industry in the 1990s.

That dual mandate has raised questions from time to time about a potential conflict about regulating an industry it is also charged with promoting. Coleman said AST’s promotional effort could be handed over to another agency, like the Office of Space Commerce, as part of the reorganization.

“There is some discussion” about that promotional role, he said. “There are a couple of ideas and thoughts that perhaps the EFP mission could be done by the Department of Commerce.” He emphasized that the EFP efforts of the office is a relatively small part of its overall work.

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...