FAA commercial space office seeks budget increase to keep up with industry growth

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WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office is seeking a modest budget increase in fiscal year 2021 as it also works on a reorganization and revision of commercial launch regulations.

The FAA, in its fiscal year 2021 budget proposal released Feb. 10, requested $27.555 million for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. That is a nearly 6% increase from the $26.04 million AST received for fiscal year 2020.

Much of the increase would go to increasing the office’s staff, which currently has 108 employees. The budget request states that AST seeks to hire nine people in the next fiscal year: six to support licensing, safety work and other regulatory activities, and three “mission support” staff to work in areas such as development of an automated licensing process and efforts to more efficiently integrate space activities into the national airspace system.

“With current staffing levels, AST will be challenged to support the projected volume of applications for licensing authorization of sites and operations,” the FAA states in its budget request. Some of those positions are highly specialized, it added. “These positions require very specialized skill sets and extensive training time is needed for new employees to become proficient in each area.”

The commercial space industry has long sought increased budgets for AST to allow it to hire more staff and avoid bottlenecks in the licensing of commercial launches and reentries as well as spaceports. Even before the release of the budget proposal, FAA officials acknowledged they needed more people as the level of commercial space activity grows.

“We are robusting the size of our organization, bringing in the skills that we need to be able to keep up with this industry and protect public safety,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, during the 23rd Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference here Jan. 29.

However, he and others within the agency have argued that simply hiring more people won’t be enough to keep up with increasing launch activity. In April 2019, Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao said that the FAA would reorganize AST to streamline its operations. The agency has released few details, though, about what that reorganization will entail.

“Reorganizations are hard. They require different roles for different people,” Chao said in remarks at the conference Jan. 29. “But what requires these changes is that our world is changing too much. 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.”

That reorganization is nearly complete, Monteith said, and will be rolled out within the next two months.

Another factor is the ongoing effort to revise commercial launch and reentry regulations. The FAA released a draft rule for public comment last spring, generating strong, and sometimes quite negative, feedback from industry. Monteith said his office is working to review the comments as it works on a final rule.

“You’ve got a dedicated team working on this to get this rule out, and get this rule out on time, and to get the best rule out that we possibly can,” he said. The goal remains to publish the final rule in the fall. “We will get it published.”

Monteith said AST will try to avoid similar difficulties in the future. “As we rolled out the new rule, it was not lost on me that we probably could have done things differently, but we had a deadline,” he said. FAA will seek to avoid that in the future, he said, by developing a schedule of how it will “refresh” other regulations in its purview. “That will ensure that we free and open communication with you, and collaboration with industry, so we get it right the first time with a whole lot less angst.”