Falcon Heavy launch
SpaceX sent the Arabsat-6A communications satellite into geosynchronous transfer orbit April 11, completing the Falcon Heavy rocket’s first commercial launch April 11. Credit: Craig Vander Galien

WASHINGTON — As the Federal Aviation Administration extends the deadline for comments to a proposed revision of commercial launch and reentry regulations, a sharp difference in opinion is emerging in industry between companies that support the revisions and those who believe it could be counterproductive.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, formally announced July 22 it was extending the comment period for a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) for streamlining of commercial launch and reentry regulations. That extension, announced earlier in the month by an FAA official, moves the deadline for submitting public comments from July 30 to Aug. 19.

The notice extending the deadline, published in the Federal Register, also stated that the FAA would respond to “clarifying questions” about the contents of the proposed rule if submitted by July 29. Those responses are being done instead of a public meeting about the rule sought by some in the industry.

The proposed rules are intended to update regulations for commercial launches and reentries, making it easier for companies to obtain licenses. However, some companies and industry organizations believe the proposed rules will do the opposite.

“Unfortunately, instead of one giant leap forward, the FAA seems to have taken only a cautious half-step towards a regulatory regime needed by the growing and diverse new space transportation providers,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, an industry group, at a July 25 hearing by the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee on commercial space issues.

The proposed rule, 580 pages long and with more than 1,000 pages of supporting documents, is “very complex and frequently confusing,” he argued. “Most current or prospective FAA space licensees have determined that the NPRM, in some ways, are worse than today’s obsolete rules.”

He highlighted several issues in his prepared testimony. The proposed rule, he said, would add regulatory burdens and costs to companies, and doesn’t meet the goal of replacing specific, prescriptive requirements for license applicants with performance-based alternatives. The proposed regulations, he said, are “anti-competitive” since they favor existing operators over new entrants, and makes changes to other regulations that aren’t needed.

Stallmer called on the FAA to publish a supplemental notice of proposed rulemaking, considering feedback from this initial proposal, and allow for additional public comment. “We appreciate the administration’s eagerness to reform the FAA’s obsolete rules, but we really need to get this right,” he said.

Not everyone in the launch industry, though, shares those views. A letter submitted into the record at the hearing from the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration supported the FAA’s work and called for the revisions to be completed as soon as possible.

“To date, the general consensus of the Coalition members who have chosen to engage on this issue has been support for AST’s efforts and the content of the NPRM,” wrote Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive of the organization. “Further, we do not support an indefinite rulemaking process, but would like AST to bring it to conclusion as soon as possible.”

The Coalition, best known for its advocacy of NASA’s human spaceflight programs, includes as members launch companies Northrop Grumman and United Launch Alliance, as well as ULA’s parent companies, Boeing and Lockheed Martin. Those four companies submitted their own comments to the FAA for the proposed rule, with language similar to the Coalition’s letter to the House Science Committee.

“We do not support an indefinite rulemaking process, but would like AST to bring it to conclusion as soon as possible,” the companies wrote in a joint letter July 24. “We need to minimize regulatory uncertainty associated with an indefinite rulemaking process.”

Those companies individually submitted comments about the NPRM. “ULA believes that the FAA has successfully navigated this complex environment and found a reasonable, balanced approach in the NPRM,” ULA stated in its letter, dated July 19.

“FAA did a superb job increasing flexibility while maintaining public safety,” said Tory Bruno, president and chief executive of ULA, in a July 19 tweet, linking to the company’s letter.

ULA just submitted our comments on the @FAANews NPRM to streamline launch licensing regulations. FAA did a superb job increasing flexibility while maintaining public safety. Thanks to @VP, @SecElaineChao and the Space Council for leading this effort. https://t.co/yLF8EgRsT1

— Tory Bruno (@torybruno) July 19, 2019

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation, on the other hand, includes as members Blue Origin and SpaceX, as well as Relativity, Rocket Lab, Vector and Virgin Orbit and a number of spaceports seeking commercial launch business. Those companies have, in many cases, called for major changes to the NPRM and how it is being developed.

An example is a July 14 letter from Bob Smith, chief executive of Blue Origin, who noted that the administration sought to streamline launch regulations to achieve goals from U.S. commercial space leadership to public safety and national security. “We have concluded after reviewing the NPRM that the proposal achieves none of these goals, and more importantly, some of FAA’s proposed regulations will stifle the innovation that will lead to safer designs and operations,” he wrote.

At the July 25 hearing, Rep. Brian Babin (R-Texas), the space subcommittee’s ranking member, noted that the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration’s letter supported the proposed rules. “From your perspective,” he asked Stallmer, “would these regulations advance U.S. leadership in commercial space or set us back?”

“I think the regulations as they’re currently written in this draft would definitely set us back,” Stallmer responded. “In a dynamic environment where innovation is occurring with new launch entrants, it creates more burdens for a lot of these new entrants.”

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...