Orbital ATK launches its Antares rocket from the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport co-located with NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia. Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

This op-ed originally appeared in the March 26, 2018 issue of SpaceNews magazine.

The rapid market development for commercial space launch services over the past several years threatens to overwhelm the capacity of the federal government to efficiently manage airspace usage between planes, unmanned aerial vehicles, and spacecraft. To address this challenge, the federal government can develop a strong governance model based on existing principles to ensure the long-term resiliency of the U.S. space launch capability.

Current state of space launch

Ten spaceports are available across the U.S. from Alaska to Florida; however, only four of these are currently launching rockets into orbit. Varying utilization between these facilities can lead to an inefficient use of airspace with suboptimal outcomes for businesses and government alike.

Modernization efforts at some of these facilities — such as migration to Automated Flight Safety System and range scheduling system upgrades — should help increase launch cadence at a few key spaceports in the future. The other six spaceports (supported by significant public funding) are also facing financial and development issues which could result in their closure over the next five to 10 years.

These limitations in early infrastructure capacity, coordination, and inefficient airspace allocation have created backlog in new space launches. At the same time, the annual number of launches by the three primary providers in the U.S. market (United Launch Alliance, SpaceX, and Orbital ATK/Northrup) and new entrants (Blue Origin, Vector Space Systems, Rocket Lab, and Virgin Galactic) continues to increase.

With the commercial appetite for space launch growing, the federal government will soon need a more sustainable, safe, and adaptable way to manage airspace. This growing need will require collaboration with relevant stakeholders, including commercial airlines, airports, space launch providers and spaceport facilities — not to mention the challenges associated with the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) by civilian enthusiasts, retail and service-oriented companies, or foreign governments.

What to consider in a new governance model

When designing the sort of unified management plan required for coordinating complex space launches, the government can use eight key criteria as guiding principles:

  • Leadership and culture
  • Policies and guidelines
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Communication and information sharing
  • Decision-making process
  • Mechanisms of accountability
  • Metrics and measurement
  • Coordination and safety

The government could begin by establishing a pilot experience at one spaceport as a test case for building a “localized model” of the governance structure. The model should refine each of these seven elements according to national priorities and standards but also account for the unique local considerations of the facility, such as geographic location, demand, capacity, etc.

Areas of responsibility (AOR) for the test case facility — and eventually all 10 spaceports — should define zones for coordination and management. Authorities, most likely the FAA, should convene representatives from all the key stakeholders. As consensus or disagreement emerges, critical data points can be funneled up to senior decision makers in the federal government and businesses for executive-level discussions hosted by the National Space Council. The federal government can then work to establish a management plan at the national level.

Engineers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, watch as a Centaur upper stage is mated to the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that launched the GOES-S weather satellite March 1. Credit: NASA?Kim Shiflett
Engineers at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida, watch as a Centaur upper stage is mated to the United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket that launched the GOES-S weather satellite March 1. Credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett

The process can look to current and proposed guidelines relating to the specifics of space launch, including request for launch, flight plans, licenses, etc. The discussion can then focus on assigning specific roles and responsibilities for launch service-providers, spaceport operators, and the government. Established protocols for reporting and monitoring airspace before and during a launch must be set-up as well.

To manage the airspace, a system of accountability must also provide enforceable mechanisms and policies to deter UAS operators from flying (whether handheld toys or full-sized aircraft) near a launch site and disable them if they come too close.

To measure successes or potential setbacks, the government can determine benchmarks on efficiency. To do so, the federal government will first need to establish the upper and lower boundaries of current space launch capacity. It can then compare these standards to new outcomes after changes from the governance structure have been implemented.

Finally, the federal government, in concert with state and local government, can develop clear strategic and policy goals for future spaceport locations to support commercial and national security interests. Given the current backlog of launches and the very real challenges relating to launch windows and airspace management, the federal government can determine how best, if at all, to use existing, underutilized spaceports.

Additionally, exploring financial incentives would allow the federal government to encourage a broader geographic footprint for U.S.-based launch services. By combining this with a localized (and eventually national) governance model for decision-making, the United States government can effectively tackle the current challenges of space launch while minimizing risk, boosting job creation, and limiting airspace disruption. This approach can help businesses keep up with rising demand and help ensure the long-term viability of America’s space launch capability in a new wave of commercial space exploration.

Bill Beyer is a Deloitte Consulting LLP principal who leads its federal space initiatives. Bill Miracky is a Deloitte Consulting managing director who focuses on Deloitte’s federal civil government strategy and federal aviation initiatives.