Falcon 9 launch time lapse
Time lapse of a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

RENTON, Wash. — The Federal Aviation Administration plans to further extend the public comment period for a proposed revision of commercial launch and reentry regulations that’s faced significant industry criticism.

In a panel discussion at the Space Frontier Foundation’s NewSpace 2019 conference here July 16, Kelvin Coleman, deputy associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said the agency would soon announce it was extending the deadline for submitting comments on the proposed regulations by 20 days.

That extension would push back the deadline for responding to the proposed rule from July 30 to Aug. 19. That extension comes after the FAA announced in May it was extending the deadline from June 14 to July 30 in response to industry requests for more time to review and comment on the regulations.

With this latest extension, Coleman noted that the FAA will have provided about four months for industry to formally comment on the proposed rules, which were published in the Federal Register April 15. The FAA released a draft version of the rules in late March.

“This is the time in which the FAA is in listening mode to hear what we didn’t get right, how we do it better, how we can fix it, and that’s what we’re hearing from the industry on right now,” he said.

Much of the commercial launch industry had criticized the short public comment period, noting it gave little time for them to review the regulations, nearly 580 pages long in their original printed form. Industry officials also noted the proposed rules also incorporated by reference a number of FAA circulars that also needed to be reviewed.

At a May 30 meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee where the agency announced the first deadline extension, some industry representatives asked the FAA to hold a public meeting where they could engage in direct discussions about aspects of the regulations and seek clarifications. The FAA said it had no plans to hold such a meeting, in part because they believed there wouldn’t be enough time to organize it.

Coleman said that, even with this latest extension, the FAA had no plans to hold a public meeting about the proposed regulations. “There’s been some discussion about the possibility of holding a public meeting, and we think that the current process that we have in place is the process that will serve us the best,” he said.

Industry, he said later, is able to ask “clarifying questions” during the public comment period, which the FAA can respond to. Once the comment period closes, the FAA will then review all the comments and then either accept them as they revise the regulations into their final form, or explain why they choose not to accept the comments.

“There are a lot of voices out there right now that would like for a more intimate engagement, if you will, with the FAA,” he said. The comment period, he said, “is an opportunity for us to sit back and hear and listen to what the industry thinks about the rule.”

Many in industry have used the comment period to either raise specific questions about the rule or general dissatisfaction about it. They believe that the proposed regulations, developed by the FAA to comply with a provision of Space Policy Directive 2 to streamline commercial launch and reentry licensing requirements, may represent a step backwards and increase the regulatory burden on companies.

Some have sought to raise the issue with the National Space Council. In a July 14 letter to James Ellis, chairman of the National Space Council’s Users’ Advisory Group, Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin and a member of the advisory group, called for a public meeting and a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to address those issues.

Smith, in a copy of the letter submitted as a public comment for the proposed FAA regulation, noted that revised regulations were intended to support goals from U.S. commercial space leadership to public safety and national security. “We have concluded after reviewing the NPRM that the proposal achieves none of these goals, and more importantly, some of FAA’s proposed regulations will stifle the innovation that will lead to safer designs and operations,” he concluded.

Stu Witt, the former head of the Mojave Air and Space Port and another member of the Users’ Advisory Group, called on the FAA to “restart the rulemaking process” in a separate letter to Ellis dated June 28 and also filed as a public comment. The current proposal, he said, “fails to streamline launch and reentry licensing requirements, and in fact makes the regulatory situation worse.”

“Do we think we have a perfect rule? By no means,” Coleman said at the conference. “We know that there’s room for improvement, and we want to understand how we can go about improving that rule.”

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...