SpaceX Falcon 9 BulgariaSat-1 launch
A SpaceX Falcon 9 lifts off from Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida June 23, carrying the BulgariaSat-1 spacecraft. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — While much of industry would like to see an office that licenses commercial spaceflight activities moved out of the Federal Aviation Administration, a new report finds little support for doing so within government itself.

An Oct. 5 report by the Government Accountability Office found split opinions between government and industry on whether the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, should be transferred to an independent office under the Secretary of Transportation, where it originally existed.

“Representatives from commercial space launch companies and spaceports GAO interviewed described advantages and disadvantages of moving the Office of Commercial Space Transportation to the Office of the Secretary of Transportation, but most of them favored moving the office,” the report stated. “Conversely, most Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) officials GAO interviewed did not favor the idea.”

The office was established in the mid-1980s as a standalone entity under the Office of the Secretary of Transportation. In 1995, though, the office was transferred to the FAA as part of an effort to streamline operations.

In recent years, some in the commercial space transportation industry have argued for returning AST to its original position outside of the FAA, arguing that the small office — AST has a little more than 100 employees out of an overall FAA workforce of more than 40,000 — lacks influence on issues such as managing airspace for launches.

“There’s going to be some very challenging issues when it comes to the aviation space and what’s happening in commercial space,” said Mike Gold, chairman of the of AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee, in a Sept. 15 speech at a space law forum here organized by the University of Nebraska College of Law. “While there have been synergies and a constructive relationship, the dialogue between the two entities needs to be a dialogue among equals, not one subordinate to the other.”

In the GAO report, unnamed representatives of industry said that they believed that an AST independent of the FAA could better coordinate with the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization as well as serve as a “one-stop shop” for regulatory issues. As a separate office, they argued, “it could facilitate a more ‘level playing field’ for space activities operating in and through the national airspace system.”

However, FAA officials cited in the report argued that moving AST out of the FAA “could make it more difficult for FAA offices to coordinate on commercial space activities” because interactions would no longer be internal within the FAA. They also minimized concerns about airspace conflicts, noting advances in airspace management would minimize airspace closures for launches in the future, lessening conflicts between air and space transportation.

Industry advocates for moving AST also argued in the report that moving the office outside FAA could allow it to develop regulations more efficiently, and also give it more resources. However, officials from the Office of the Secretary of Transportation cautioned that such a move would not guarantee AST additional resources for rulemaking and other activity, and would also require the office to pay for support services that the FAA provides today.

The GAO report was prepared for three members of Congress, including Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.), who has been an advocate for commercial space issues and was nominated Sept. 1 to become the next administrator of NASA. The other members were Rep. Ami Bera (D-Calif.), ranking member of the House space subcommittee, and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-Wash.), a member of the House Appropriations Committee also interested in commercial space issues. The report made no recommendations on whether or not AST should be transferred out of FAA.

The report did note that, should the government decide to move AST out of FAA, it could be done through a rulemaking process similar to that used in 1995 to move the office into the FAA. That process would need to take into account several issues, from different pay scales used by the FAA and the Department of Transportation to finding new office space for AST.

Officials with the Office of the Secretary of Transportation told the GAO that there are no plans currently under consideration about moving the office. Industry advocates of such a move, though, are hopeful that that the administration will consider a shift.

“This is an idea whose time has come,” Gold said in his speech last month. “It’s something that I certainly perhaps hope to see as we move forward in the commercial legislation process and something that I think this administration should take a very hard look at if we’re going to prevent bureaucracy and prevent red tape from keeping commercial space and the space industry as a whole from moving forward.”

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...