Hearing raises questions about pace of commercial launch regulatory overhaul

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RENTON, Wash. — As the commercial launch industry seeks regulatory reforms to streamline the licensing process, other are raising concerns about a schedule that calls for those changes to be completed next year.

Space Policy Directive (SPD) 2, signed by President Trump May 24, directs the Department of Transportation, through the Federal Aviation Administration, to develop revised regulations for licensing of commercial launches and reentries. It specifically calls for a single license for all launches of a specific vehicle and replacing prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria. The policy requires that work to be complete by Feb. 1, 2019.

At a hearing June 26 of the aviation subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, industry representatives said such changes were needed to deal with regulations that don’t reflect the technologies used in vehicles today or the growing pace of launch activity.

“FAA launch licensing regulations, designed decades ago, are outdated and unnecessarily onerous,” said Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX. “They are not reflective of new technologies, such as reusable rockets and autonomous flight safety systems.” She said the company supported the reform process set into place by SPD-2.

Audrey Powers, deputy general counsel of Blue Origin, agreed. She noted that FAA’s licensing approach for expendable launch vehicle followed a prescriptive approach, while its licensing of reusable launch vehicles (RLVs) used performance-based criteria, giving companies the flexibility to choose its preferred technical approach for meeting those criteria. The company is able to take advantage of the latter for its New Glenn orbital launch vehicle, whose first stage is designed to be reused.

However, she said that since New Glenn will launch from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, it must also comply with Air Force requirements, which follow the prescriptive approach the FAA uses for expendable vehicles regardless of whether the vehicle is expendable or reusable. “This means that reusable launch vehicle operators lose the benefit of FAA’s performance-based approach to regulating RLVs because we must also meet the Air Force’s prescriptive requirements,” she said.

SpaceX runs into other licensing issues, Schenewerk said, if it moves Falcon 9 launches between Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral and Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center, a short distance apart but under different jurisdictions. “If we change sites prior to the mission, we have to undertake a license modification process,” she said. “That is not a practical situation.”

Some members of the subcommittee, though, worried about the pace of the reforms. “We’ve heard from some stakeholders that FAA’s regulations were adopted 25 years ago and are, in fact, in desperate need for a rewrite,” said Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), ranking member of the subcommittee. “But we’ve also heard from folks who caution that safety might be compromised if the FAA is forced to ‘streamline’ its regulatory framework in just 12 months.”

“Safety is always paramount, and we’re never in favor of any time restriction or deadline that would impact safety,” said Tim Canoll, president of the Air Line Pilots Association, who testified on the integration of space operations into the national airspace system, which is dominated by commercial aircraft.

He reiterated that later in the hearing. “The FAA needs time to do their safety data analysis so they propose rules that they’re comfortable meet the safety standard,” he said. “If the safest course means we’re not going to make the 12-month deadline, then we’re just not going to make the 12-month deadline.”

His later comments came in response to questions from Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.), who was skeptical revised regulations could be completed in such a short period of time. “I’ve been on this committee for a long time, but I’ve never seen regulations done within one year,” she said.

Even some in the space industry raised questions about the pace of regulatory reform. “We have concerns the timeline is so aggressive,” said Kelly Gareheime, associate general counsel at United Launch Alliance.

Her issue was that the timeline would not allow for further collaboration with industry, through mechanisms like aviation rulemaking committees before the new regulations are completed. “Our concern at ULA is that regulations don’t necessarily address the input we provided,” she said.

Advocates for the expedited regulatory review, though, noted that the deadline of Feb. 1 of next year is only for a notice of proposed rulemaking, not the final regulations themselves. “There is the potential for a lengthy comment period and reviews” after the publication of the proposed regulations, said Powers. “It’s left to be determined how long the actual process will take in its entirety.”