Editor's Note

US Commercial Space Regulation on Path to FAA Policy Inflection Point

Wayne Monteith, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, used a tech talk hosted by the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics to explain how he sees the agency’s regulation of commercial space operations evolving into the future. Photo: FAA

Faced with rapidly-increasing appetite for commercial space launches, the Federal Aviation Administration is planning to overhaul its regulatory approach to managing the future endeavors of companies like SpaceX and Virgin Galactic, according to a briefing on the topic given during the Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics (RTCA) Surface to Space Transportation Tech Talk last month.

During an hour-long presentation and question and answer session, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation Wayne Monteith outlined how the agency is changing its approach to regulating the operational, airspace restriction and vehicle certification aspects of commercial space transportation. In April, Monteith’s office completely transferred responsibility for commercial launch airspace entry and reentry activities to the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, among other steps it is taking.

Congress first granted the Commercial Space Transportation office regulatory authority over commercial space launches in 1984, as a division of the Department of Transportation. In 1995, that authority was then transferred to a division within the FAA. Nine years later, a major change led to what Monteith – a former commercial space launch operator himself – describes as a transition to the current period of "moratorium."

“In 2004, the most significant addition was the authorization to regulate the commercial human spaceflight industry,” Monteith said. “But interestingly, at the same time we were given authorization, we were also put concurrently into what was called a learning period, or what we call a ‘moratorium,’ where what we can actually regulate and the ability to promulgate regulations related to passenger or spaceflight participant safety was put in abeyance. That was because we did not want to preclude this industry from being able to grow.”

, FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation Wayne Monteith explained why the FAA does not have full regulatory control over the commercial space industry.

Since 2004, that moratorium has been extended two additional times. It is currently scheduled to expire in 2023, and Monteith has no indication as to whether it will be extended or removed.

Instead of directly regulating the commercial space industry as the FAA regulates commercial air transportation, the office operates under an informed consent policy. While it does regulate and authorize spaceport licenses and permits commercial space companies to enter and re-enter commercial airspace, it’s not as straight-forward as it sounds.

“We have developed best practices and standards along with the industry, a 62-page document, with 100 recommendations to lay the foundation for when the moratorium is lifted at some point in the future. We continue to work with organizations like [American Society for Testing and Materials] ASTM to develop standards as we look to 2023 or beyond, or whenever the moratorium is lifted, because the future is here,” Monteith said.

A graph showing the how the number of commercial space launches has been increasing since 2013, presented by Monteith. Starting in 2020, the graph shows the projected number of operations by the FAA in orange, and the industry, in green.

“We have companies flying today, we have companies actively looking to fly more spaceflight participants, and at some point there’s going to be an inflection. There’s going to be enough spaceflight participants, that they become passengers at some point and therefore it would make sense to have a stable regulatory environment.”

Among the major factors driving the need for changes to the way the FAA regulates commercial space are the sheer number of launches being sought in the United States right now. A forecast the office completed in 2013 expected 32 commercial launches and 56 satellites a year by 2023.

Last month, the second week of June alone saw 61 satellites launched between SpaceX and Rocketlab. A single SpaceX Starlink mission launches 60 at a time.

Amazon also plans to launch 3,300 satellites, with SpaceX seeking authorization for up to 12,000 satellites. Monteith believes that this proliferation in the number of satellites being launched combined with the goals of future commercial suborbital spaceflight endeavors creates the need for continued policy changes adopted by the FAA.

Data presented by Monteith about how the number of commercial satellite launches continues to proliferate and will increase into the future.

“In 2012, we had three launches, at the time that was about 25 employees per launch. At the rate we’re looking now, we’re having maybe two people per launch, and going to less than a single person for a launch,” Monteith said.

Another top agency priority is the management of airspace when launches occur, often leading to the closing down of airspace surrounding the launch area for up to three hours or more. Currently, the process for accomplishing this is coordinated by the a team of FAA air traffic and aerospace experts known as the Joint Space Operations Group (JSpOG), located at the FAA’s Air Traffic Control System David J. Hurley Air Traffic Control System Command Center. The group gathers data from operators and spaceports and uses basic voice and digital communications to notify necessary airports and airlines about the duration and area of the airspace restriction.

Monteith estimates that it takes up to 18 minutes from the time that group realizes a rocket launch has experienced a catastrophic anomaly to communicating that information to pilots through a Notice to Airman (NOTAM) or other methods of air traffic to pilot awareness communication. In recent years, the FAA has sought to improve that type coordination required for a successful launch with a focus on reducing the swath of airspace required to be restricted for launches, which will become especially important as the number scales up into the future.

“At 30 launches a year it’s irritating. At 300 launches a year it’s impacting business and has the potential for safety events,” Monteith said.

Development of the Space Data Integrator (SDI), an automated system designed to gather commercial space operational data at a central point before sending the required information to the central U.S. ATC network first began in 2014. SDI is designed to allow the FAA to track the actual versus planned trajectory of commercial launch and reentry operations, status of mission events and display of aircraft hazard areas (AHAs). This information is then integrated into the air traffic system via the FAA’s Traffic Flow Management System (TFMS) and Range Risk Analysis tool.

Users from within the JSpOG are currently evaluating a prototype version of SDI at the FAA William J. Hughes Technical Center in Atlantic City, New Jersey. It has already been used in “shadow modes” with SpaceX and Blue Origin, with the system expected to be ready to test SDI’s ability to make real airspace management decisions by August 2020, but has not yet put a timeline on when it will be ready for real operational use.

The next immediate milestone that sets the Commercial Space Transportation office is the official update of the FAA’s regulations for the commercial space launch and reentry business, scheduled to be released in September.. Monteith said it is currently an 800-page document that is being reviewed by himself, FAA Administrator Stephen Dickson and other leadership with the Department of Transportation.

“We’ve talked about maybe there’s a point on the commercial human spaceflight side where a certification type program makes more sense than an individual license. We’re looking at everything with an eye toward how do we enable this industry while still maintaining safety,” Monteith said.

According to Monteith, the finalized version will “puts under one regulation, essentially, the ability to regulate everything that will launch to space or suborbital space on every different kind of vehicle to any duration, any type,” he said. “It allows companies to have a single license for multiple launches at multiple locations, which knocks down many of those bureaucratic impediments to industry success.”

Receive the latest avionics news right to your inbox