FAA establishes spaceport office to support growing number of launch sites

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WASHINGTON — As the Federal Aviation Administration licenses another commercial spaceport, it has formally opened an office to address the issues facing such launch sites.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) issued a launch site operators license, better known as a spaceport license, May 5 to the Titusville-Cocoa Airport Authority. The license allows the authority to conduct launches from Space Coast Regional Airport in Titusville, Florida.

The authority spent the last several years working on a spaceport license application, including an environmental assessment whose draft was published in December. The authority noted in those documents that while it could host a variety of commercial launch vehicles designed to take off and land on runways, it did not have an agreement at the time with any particular launch company to use the facility.

The latest license brings to 12 the number of FAA-licensed spaceports in the United States. While some have high-profile customers, like Spaceport America in New Mexico, which serves as the home base for Virgin Galactic’s suborbital SpaceShipTwo vehicle, many of the other licensed spaceports have no launch companies using them.

To help support launch sites, Congress directed the FAA in a 2018 reauthorization bill to establish an Office of Spaceports. The FAA formally opened the office as part of a reorganization of AST announced in early April.

The reauthorization bill directed the new Office of Spaceports to address issues such as licensing, infrastructure improvements, technical support and promotion of spaceports, as well as strengthening the resilience of the commercial space transportation infrastructure.

“None of this is any small feat,” said Pam Underwood, the new director of the office, during an April 29 online meeting of the Global Spaceport Alliance, a group whose members include many existing or prospective spaceports in the United States and elsewhere. “These are detailed activities that we take very seriously.”

Underwood said the new office has several initial activities. It is working with the U.S. Space Force on efforts to revise the management of the Eastern and Western Ranges in Florida and California. It is developing a plan to offer infrastructure grants to spaceports, similar to those the FAA provides to airports, should such a program be funded by Congress in the future.

Other issues involve regulations. She said the office is looking into modernizing the regulation of launch and reentry sites, and coordinate those regulations with those under development in other nations. The office will also work to promote the capabilities of commercial launch sites.

One immediate topic, she said, is helping spaceports exchange information on how to operate amid the coronavirus pandemic. “We’ve been able to talk with spaceports and get feedback about how this is impacting their daily activities and some of the economic and operational implications,” she said.

The reauthorization act also directed the FAA to produce a report on national spaceport policy. That report would examine needs by government and commercial users for launch facilities and “proposes policies and programs designed to ensure a robust and resilient orbital and suborbital infrastructure.” It would also examine spaceport activities in other countries.

That report, which was due to Congress a year after the bill’s enactment in October 2018, has been written but is not quite ready for release, Underwood said. “The policy report is in review,” she said, having to go through multiple levels within the FAA and elsewhere in the federal government. She said she didn’t know when it would be ready, in part because the government’s response to the pandemic has taken resources away from activities like review of the report.