WASHINGTON — A top Department of Transportation official suggested the launch industry should help pay for additional resources for the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) Nov. 8, Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation, all but rejected calls from industry to sharply increase the budget of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, to deal with growing levels of launch activity.

At an Oct. 18 hearing by the Senate Commerce Committee’s space subcommittee, industry witnesses recommended a significant increase in the budget for that office, which received nearly $37.6 million in fiscal year 2023, to hire more personnel to handle launch and reentry licensing. One witness, Bill Gerstenmaier of SpaceX, specifically recommended doubling the office’s budget.

Asked about increasing AST’s budget, Trottenberg said there were competing priorities elsewhere in the FAA, noting that the aviation did not receive as much support in last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as other modes of transportation. “I don’t think we made the commensurate investments on the aviation side,” she said, including in “the bread-and-butter systems of the FAA.”

She proposed that it may be time for industry to contribute some portion of additional revenues needed for enhancing AST. “We’re an agency that has the ability to generate revenue and I think that’s going to be a question for this industry,” she said, adding that she was offering her own opinion and not that of the department itself.

While the FAA does generate revenue from user fees for aviation, it has not generally collected any such fees for launch licensing. She returned to it later in the meeting when another COMSTAC member noted the relatively small size of the AST budget relative to the overall FAA budget. The FAA requested $19.8 billion for fiscal year 2024, of which $42 million would go to AST.

“Everyone is ducking a little bit my question, which is, does the industry need to start, frankly, contributing some revenues to solve the funding challenges that AST has?” Trottenberg said.

She described the tensions between the launch industry and the commercial aviation industry on access to airspace, and criticism from the launch industry that proposed FAA guidelines for deconflicting airspace uses appeared to favor aviation. “I wanted to chuckle a little bit because, admittedly, commercial aviation funds most of the agency.”

She argued that while AST’s budget and the requested increase is a small fraction of the overall FAA budget, “every penny gets fought over.” She mentioned competing priorities, such as investing in technologies to address a recent series of near-misses in aviation. “You can say each little piece doesn’t cost that much, but when you add it all together the agency has big needs writ large.”

Her views were seasoned by a four-and-a-half-month stint earlier this year as acting FAA administrator. That included, she said, “a lot of the interagency parts of commercial space” working with the White House and other agencies. “A lot of collaboration, sometimes some spirited engagement.”

One factor driving industry’s desire to increase FAA’s budget is the demands of a new licensing regime for commercial launches, called Part 450. While designed to be streamlined, some of the first companies to use that new licensing process have complained of delays. Gerstenmaier, at the October hearing, warned “the entire regulatory system is at risk of collapse” as the FAA moves vehicles operating under older licenses to the new system.

“There’s been a lot of talk lately about the Part 450 regulations and the time and complexity of completing an application,” said Michael O’Donnell, deputy associate administrator of commercial space transportation at the FAA, at the COMSTAC meeting.

He argued that the four licenses issued to date under Part 450 were all for new vehicles, which required “substantial iterations” during the license review process. “The FAA believes that future Part 450 evaluations will be completed in a timely way.”

COMSTAC members were not necessarily convinced. Caryn Schenewerk, a consultant who previously worked for Relativity Space and SpaceX, argued new companies using the Part 450 process are at a potential disadvantage to existing companies with older licenses. “I’m quite concerned with what I see as looking like a hindrance to newer entrants and that it’s affecting potential competition among providers,” she said.

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...