GAO Criticizes FAA for Lack of Commercial Space Budget Details

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WASHINGTON — A report by the U.S. Government Accountability Office Sept. 21 concluded that the Federal Aviation Administration has not provided enough information about the workload of its commercial space office to justify the $1.5 million in additional funding it requested for 2016.

The GAO report on the commercial space launch industry, requested by Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), chairman of the House Science Committee, said that FAA did not include metrics required by White House Office of Management and Budget guidelines to explain why it needed to add 13 full-time equivalent positions to its Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) in the next fiscal year.

“FAA’s justification did not provide a detailed analysis of the staffing changes requested and is based on the number of projected launches,” the report stated. “FAA’s budget submission also did not consider alternative approaches such as paying additional overtime, rather than hiring additional staff.”

FAA officials have said on several occasions this year that the budget increase to hire additional staff is needed to cope with what it projects to be an increased workload from suborbital and orbital commercial launches and other licensing activities, such as commercial spaceports. Without an increase, those officials warned that it may have to delay processing of launch license and other applications.

The GAO report cautioned about using predictions of launches as a reason for hiring additional staff because, in recent years, “the actual number of launches during those years was much lower than what FAA projected.” In one example, the FAA projected it would license more than 40 launches and reentries in 2014, but the actual number was about 20.

The report also revealed a split among companies in the commercial launch business about the importance of increasing AST’s budget. While industry organizations like the Commercial Spaceflight Federation have expressed their support for the proposed budget increase, only three of the nine companies surveyed by the GAO believed the office has insufficient resources to deal with its workload. Three other companies thought the office has sufficient resources, and the remaining three expressed no opinion.

The report did not identify which companies held those opinions, but did list the nine companies contacted by the GAO: Blue Origin, Boeing, Masten Space Systems, Orbital ATK, SpaceX, United Launch Alliance, Virgin Galactic, Vulcan Aerospace and XCOR Aerospace.

The FAA, in its response to the GAO, said it is improving its launch prediction methodology and will also provide additional details about its workload to justify any future budget increases. However, it also argued that those metrics don’t capture the workload the office faces, as it handles initial discussions with dozens of potential projects that may later apply for licenses.

“For example, the FAA currently has 54 distinct projects in ‘pre-application coordination’ for possible FAA authorization,” Jeff Marootian, assistant secretary for administration at the Dept. of Transportation, wrote in an Aug. 5 letter to the GAO included in the report. “Pre-application coordination, which is required under the commercial space regulatory framework, represents a heavy workload for AST, and it is a crucial step in the licensing process.”

The FAA requested $18.1 million for AST in its 2016 budget request, an increase of $1.5 million over its 2015 budget. House and Senate appropriations bills, though, provided less than that: a bill passed by the House June 9 increased AST’s budget by $250,000, while a bill approved by Senate appropriators June 25 added $825,000.

Smith, in a Sept. 21 statement about the report, did not directly address the budget issue, but suggested the office make the most of its current resources. “As the commercial space sector grows, FAA AST should exercise all of its existing authorities and maximize its current resources,” he said. “GAO’s report highlights ways that can be done, such as utilizing overtime and facilitating the development of industry standards to respond to increased workloads.”

Smith added that the report justifies the need to extend the current “learning period” that limits the FAA’s ability to enact regulations governing the safety of spaceflight participants. The GAO said that a majority of companies and industry organizations it talked with endorsed an extension of the learning period, which is set to expire Sept. 30.

Both the House and Senate have passed bills that would, among other provisions, extend the learning period by five or ten years. The two bills have yet to be reconciled, but Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), ranking member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said Sept. 15 he was hopeful a final bill would be ready “in the next few weeks.”