WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is requesting a nine-percent budget increase beginning in October for its commercial space office, whose resources have been stressed by an increase in launch activity and two high-profile accident investigations.
The FAA’s fiscal year 2016 budget request, released Feb. 2, seeks $18.1 million for operations of its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST), an increase of $1.5 million above what it received in a 2015 omnibus appropriations bill that funds the federal government through September.
Most of that increase will be used to hire additional staff for the office, responsible for both regulating and promoting commercial space transportation activities. The budget increase would allow the office to increase its staff by 25 employees, to 106.
“Expansion of commercial space transportation is increasing AST’s regulatory workload, while the Office’s resources remain essentially unchanged,” the FAA stated in its budget request. It noted there were 19 commercial launches carried out under FAA licenses and permits in fiscal year 2014, with 20 to 30 such launches projected in 2015 and more than 30 in 2016.
That increased workforce would allow the office to handle oversight of those launches and of nine licensed commercial launch sites. Adding to the workload are requirements in federal law for the office to rule on a launch license no more than 180 days after receiving a completed application, and within 120 days for experimental permit applications.
Not mentioned in the budget document is the strain AST has experienced supporting investigations into two commercial spaceflight accidents. The office is overseeing an investigation by Orbital Sciences Corp. into the Oct. 28 failure of its Antares rocket shortly after liftoff from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport in Virginia, destroying a Cygnus cargo spacecraft bound for the International Space Station. The office is also supporting a National Transportation Safety Board investigation into the Oct. 31 accident that destroyed Virgin Galactic’s first SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle near Mojave, California, killing one of two pilots on board.
Shortly after the accident, FAA officials said the office was devoting “significant resources” into supporting both investigations, but declined to specify how many of its 81 staff members were working on them. The agency said at the time that it was prioritizing its resources to support those investigations.
In addition to the $18.1 million to support AST operations, the 2016 budget request includes $5 million for other commercial space transportation work. The proposal seeks to establish a new commercial space transportation safety research program, funded at $3 million in 2016. Of that funding, $1 million would go to the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation, a coalition of universities performing research in the field, and $2 million to continue research initiated by the center.
The goals of that research, according to the budget document, include completing an assessment of the safety of various commercial space transportation technologies and a study on the breakup characteristics of advanced spaceflight vehicles. In addition, the office seeks to collect physiological data from people flying on commercial vehicles as part of the research program.
The budget request also seeks $2 million to study better ways to incorporate commercial launches and spacecraft reentries into the national airspace system, work that the FAA says today requires considerable manual effort. “As it is so resource intensive, the team struggles to keep pace with the increasing commercial space operations tempo,” the FAA document says of current procedures.