THE WOODLANDS, Texas — The Federal Aviation Administration is requesting a major budget increase for its commercial space office to both keep up with growing launch demand and prepare for potential new regulatory roles.

The FAA, in its fiscal year 2025 budget proposal released March 11, requested $57.13 million for its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. That is a 36% increase from the $42.018 million AST received in the final fiscal year 2024 spending bill passed last week.

A large portion of that increase, $7.9 million, would go towards hiring additional staff to support launch and reentry licensing and oversight of those activities. “AST needs additional licensing and permitting evaluators, environmental protection and stakeholder engagement specialists, and safety analysts to double its average annual new authorization determination capacity from 5 to 10 while keeping pace with requests for modifications and renewals,” the FAA stated in its budget documents.

The funding would be used to both hire additional staff and contractors to support licensing and oversight work. The resources would also allow AST to address other areas, such as potential changes to streamlined launch regulations known as Part 450 that have been criticized by industry as being difficult to implement. The FAA announced in February it would create an aerospace rulemaking committee to study potential changes to Part 450.

“AST has already recognized some shortcomings in the part 450 rule, as well as gaps in standards and guidance, that could be readily resolved with additional resources to support policy development and rulemaking,” the FAA stated in the budget request.

While AST has grown significantly in recent years, it is still struggling to keep up with a much higher pace of commercial launch activities. “We’ve seen increased demand for our services over the last few years,” Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said at a Feb. 21 media roundtable. “Right now we’re at about 140 people and they’re all pedaling as fast as they can.”

He said AST expected to grow to 157 people by the end of 2024, but was looking for additional funding in 2025 to hire more staff. “The workflow has gotten such that more hands on deck will certainly be helpful for us.”

The funding increase would also go towards additional potential regulatory work. AST is seeking $2.6 million in new funding for “orbital human spaceflight oversight,” hiring staff and bringing in contractors “to begin the process of developing orbital human spaceflight safety rules” and create a joint working group with NASA on human spaceflight safety.

The FAA is currently limited in how it can regulate safety of occupants on commercial spacecraft under a “learning period” enacted in 2004 and extended several times. The learning period is now set to expire in May, but is expected to be extended, perhaps for up to eight years, in a new comprehensive FAA reauthorization bill.

“At the expiration of the learning period, AST plans to develop and execute a regulatory scheme for occupant safety during launch, reentry, and suborbital operations,” the budget document states, with the new oversight activity intended to prepare for that.

The proposal also requests nearly $3.5 million for work on mission authorization, or oversight of commercial space activities not currently overseen by the FAA or other agencies. A White House proposal released in November would split responsibilities for mission authorization between the FAA and the Office of Space Commerce, with the FAA responsible for human spaceflight activities and in-space transportation. A House bill, though, would give mission authorization solely to the Office of Space Commerce.

The funding, the FAA said in the budget request, would go towards hiring staff to handle mission authorization activities and develop regulations. “Once authorized by Congress, the FAA must develop and execute a new regulatory structure including pre-application information, application requirements, review standards, and an inspection and compliance scheme.”

The growth of commercial space is not just affecting AST’s budget. The FAA budget proposal includes a request for $7 million in additional funding for its Air Traffic Organization (ATO) related to commercial space activities. The funding would allow ATO to hire additional staff to support airspace coordination for launches.

ATO currently only has four fulltime positions devoted to commercial space operations, the budget request noted, even as the number of launches grows. “The ATO’s current capabilities to plan and carry out launches are at capacity,” the document states. The funding would go towards hiring more staff as well as development of automation capabilities.

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...