Falcon 9 launch time lapse
Time lapse of a Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral. Credit: SpaceX

WASHINGTON — A Senate appropriations bill that funds the Federal Aviation Administration for fiscal year 2020 also called on the agency to revise its approach to streamlining commercial launch and regulatory regulations.

The Senate Appropriations Committee approved Sept. 19 a bill that funds the Department of Transportation, which includes the FAA, as well as the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The bill includes $26.04 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, compared to an administration request of $25.598 million and $24.949 million provided in the House’s version of the spending bill.

While the bill slightly increases the funding of the office, which licenses commercial launch activity, the committee was critical of the ongoing effort to streamlining that licensing process, calling on the FAA to release another draft of proposed regulations.

“The draft rule creates unnecessary barriers to entry for new companies, may prevent many operators from achieving or maintaining flight rates and cost efficiencies to support new space applications and markets, and fails to address the application of the regulations to future space port locations,” the report accompanying the bill stated.

The draft rule it referred to was a notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, the FAA released in April on revising commercial launch and reentry licensing regulations, the deadline for public comments closed Aug. 19. The proposed rule faced stiff criticism from many, but not all, companies in the commercial launch industry, who saw it as more of a step backwards than an advancement.

“Most current or prospective FAA space licensees have determined that the NPRM, in some ways, are worse than today’s obsolete rules,” Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, said at a July hearing of the House Science Committee’s space subcommittee. He recommended the FAA take the public input it received and publish a supplement version of the proposed rule for additional public comment before a final version.

“In order to ensure that new regulations do not inhibit innovation, potentially result in less safe systems, and keep pace with the U.S. commercial space industry’s operations, CSF strongly recommends that the FAA issue a revised Supplemental NPRM, publish the missing Advisory Circulars, and engage in a productive dialogue with stakeholders,” Stallmer said in an Aug. 19 statement about his organization’s comments on the proposed rule.

Senate appropriators backed that approach, and criticized the FAA for ignoring recommendations from an aviation rulemaking committee (ARC) when developing the NPRM.

“However, the draft rule does not include relevant language approved by a majority of ARC members, and as a result, the proposed rule fails to implement a streamlined and performance based approach to regulating an industry whose continued growth and innovation is critical to national security and civilian space exploration,” the report stated.

“The Committee encourages the FAA to reconvene the Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements ARC and consider a supplemental NPRM prior to issuing a final rule in order to meet an artificial deadline,” the committee recommended in its report.

Not everyone in the industry has problems with the draft rule, in particular more established companies like United Launch Alliance. “ULA believes that the FAA has successfully navigated this complex environment and found a reasonable, balanced approach in the NPRM,” the company said in a July letter filed as a public comment on the draft rule.

The rulemaking process was triggered by Space Policy Directive 2 in May 2018, which called on the FAA to issue a draft rule for streamlining the commercial launch licensing process by February 2019. The FAA didn’t formally publish the rule until April, in large part because of the five-week partial government shutdown in December and January. The FAA hasn’t stated when it expects to either publish a final rule or a revised draft rule.

Wayne Monteith, the associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, met with Commercial Spaceflight Federation members at a meeting of the organization Sept. 16. Those who attended the meeting described the lengthy discussion as productive.

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...