Raptors in Super Heavy
The large number of Raptor engines needed for SpaceX's Starship/Super Heavy vehicle is creating a “production crisis” at SpaceX, company founder Elon Musk said in an internal email. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — House appropriators eliminated most of a proposed budget increase for the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space transportation office while also directing the agency on spaceports and cooperation with another agency on spaceflight investigations.

The House Appropriations Committee approved June 30 its version of a transportation and housing and urban development spending bill for fiscal year 2023. The bill funds several agencies, including the FAA.

The report accompanying the bill, released June 29, included $33.675 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST. The agency requested $42.5 million for AST in its 2023 budget proposal, and the office received $32.47 million in fiscal year 2022. The report didn’t elaborate on the reduction from the request. Other parts of FAA operations received all or nearly all their requested funding.

The report does fully fund other research and facility work related to commercial spaceflight. That includes $10 million for work integrating commercial launches and reentries into the national airspace system and $5.7 million for commercial spaceflight safety research.

The report specifically directed the FAA “to continue prioritizing its research on the explosive yield and environmental effects of LOX/methane on public health and safety,” working with other agencies and the industry. Several new launch vehicles, including Starship, Vulcan Centaur and New Glenn, use liquid oxygen (LOX) and methane propellants, a combination about which there is limited safety information.

Appropriators chided the FAA for not completing work on a spaceport report. An FAA reauthorization act in 2018 directed the agency to submit a report on national spaceport policies, including proposing “policies and programs designed to ensure a robust and resilient orbital and suborbital spaceport infrastructure” and recommendations for increased investment in such infrastructure. That spaceport report was due no later than a year after the bill’s enactment in October 2018.

The appropriations report directed the FAA to specifically look at two existing programs, called Space Transportation Infrastructure Matching Grants and the Airport Improvement Program, and assess their effectiveness for supporting spaceport infrastructure projects. Commercial spaceport operators have complained about a lack of funding sources for improvement projects.

In a separate portion of the report funding the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the committee took up a dispute between NTSB and FAA regarding investigations of commercial spaceflight accidents. The NTSB issued a proposed regulation last year that would give it authority to investigate such accidents, currently handled by FAA/AST, a move that both industry and the FAA sharply criticized.

In May, Jennifer Homendy, chair of the NTSB, said in a letter to the House Science Committee leadership that her agency was engaging with both industry and the FAA on roles in such investigations. The NTSB would seek another round of public comment on the proposed regulations and continue meetings with the FAA to update an existing memorandum of agreement (MOA) between them.

Appropriators said in the report they were “encouraged” by those recent developments and pushed the agencies to accelerate work on a new MOA. “The Committee believes that finalizing the MOA is of the utmost importance,” the report states, directing FAA and NTSB to complete the updated agreement within 180 days of the bill’s enactment. The committee also directed the agencies to brief industry on the contents of the MOA and hold a public hearing as part of the continuing NTSB rulemaking process.

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...