Foust Forward | As the launch industry grows, it finds it needs to share

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“Foust Forward” appears in every issue of SpaceNews magazine. This column ran in the July 30, 2018 issue.

The commercial spaceflight industry has been enjoying success both on and off the launch pad this year.

The Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has licensed 20 commercial orbital and suborbital launches through late July, from test flights by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic to a steady stream of SpaceX Falcon 9 missions. The White House has backed calls for regulatory reform, including language in Space Policy Directive 2 to streamline the licensing process. A Senate bill introduced July 25 contains similar provisions.

Thanks to those successes, though, the commercial launch sector is facing a new threat from a far larger and more influential industry: the airlines.

In recent months, the airline industry, which previously paid little public attention to launch, has raised its profile and expressed its concern about how the growing number of launches could affect its operations. And it’s getting noticed by both the FAA and Congress.

“As the U.S. airline industry works to meet future passenger and shipper demands, while spaceflight operations also increase, the aerospace industry must jointly create policies, regulations and procedures to share resources efficiently and, most of all, safely,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, at a House aviation subcommittee hearing June 26 on commercial space transportation regulatory reform.

A concern for Canoll is the impact that launches have on the national airspace system, with large areas often restricted for up to hours at a time. He cited an FAA study of a 2013 launch from Cape Canaveral that caused flights in the busy East Coast corridor to be rerouted, creating delays of up to 23 minutes.

“Given the interest in increasing the number and scale of spaceflight launches, it’s easy to extrapolate the tremendous effect commercial space operations could have on the U.S. airline industry, as well as on its passengers, cargo shippers and workers, if integration isn’t managed correctly,” he said.

The airline industry is also taking a more visible role on an advisory committee. When the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) met in June for the first time in more than 18 months, its new members included several people from aviation industry organizations, like Airlines for America and Airports Council International, alongside representatives from space companies.

At the COMSTAC meeting, there was discussion about ways to improve integration of aviation and space activities. “The increasing frequency and complexity of commercial launch and re-entry operations have caused the FAA to review how it protects aircraft and passengers,” said Dan Murray of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

There are efforts underway to address the issue, including work to refine how much airspace is closed and for how long. “As a mission unfolds, we can compute in real time the airspace protected by the mission,” he said. “When airspace is no longer needed by a mission, it can be released immediately.” Developing those approaches, though, may take several years, and it’s unclear how much it will cost and who will pay.

There’s also a more fundamental difference between aviation and spaceflight when it comes to safety. The FAA has a standard of no more than one catastrophic accident per 1 billion air traffic control operations, but in commercial space the threshold is one casualty per 1 million launch or re-entry operations.

“They don’t match up,” Murray said. “We could impose one industry’s standards on the other, but this could have some pretty drastic, negative consequences.”

A failure to work together could also have some negative consequences for the launch industry, given the far greater influence of the airlines. Success, like what the launch industry has seen recently, can have its price as well.


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Jeff Foust writes about space policy, commercial space, and related topics for SpaceNews. His Foust Forward column appears in every issue of the magazine.