Space

FAA challenged by growing commercial space industry

SPACEX CRS8 

The SpaceX Dragon launches at Cape Canaveral in April 2016. (Image courtesy: NASA)

Space traffic is on the rise. The Federal Aviation Administration saw a 55 percent increase in the number of launch applications filed by private companies in fiscal 2016 compared to the year before, according to the agency's administrator.

Those applications, according to FAA Administrator Michael Huerta’s remarks at the 20th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C., covered a range of ever-more diverse space vehicles from reusable and small-payload rockets, to high-altitude balloons and space vehicle carrier aircraft.

Companies such as SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic are evidence of a growing and diversifying space vehicle industry. Huerta likened the phenomenon to the early stages of the aviation industry a century ago.

"Space is not the exclusive domain of the government. Industry is democratizing space, launching more vehicles from more launch sites than ever," he said.

The FAA is moving to smooth out its own processes and technology to allow for more frequent launches with more safety checks. Those moves include a possible takeover of space traffic control, or space situational awareness, from the Department of Defense.

It is also investigating how to restructure its current regulatory framework, which focuses on aircraft, to make it appropriate for a variety of airborne vehicles, including include high-performance jets, balloons and the aircraft portion of hybrid systems that also contain a rocket-powered launch vehicle.

Huerta said the FAA's tests of a system that can more quickly turn air restrictions on and off over geographic areas for an increasing number of launches is progressing well at Florida's Cape Canaveral. The system, he said, is needed as not only the number of launches increases, but the locations of those launches mulitply as spaceports are built across the country.

"Space launches are now exceptional" events that can shut down commercial aircraft flight paths for hours, he said. With the growing number of space or near-space launches and vehicles, such delays can't continue or they will threaten commercial flight paths and companies.

Tests of a system that can automatically determine and apportion airspace between commercial space launches and ordinary air traffic are underway. The Space Data Integrator system test at Cape Canaveral in December saw "extremely positive results," he said.

Along with those activities, Huerta called on the burgeoning commercial space industry to help develop categories of emerging space ports. Vehicles launched into space, or near space, can range from small rockets, to large aircraft-sized "lifting bodies" that boost payloads into orbit, making a categorization system for the places they launch from necessary -- what's safe for a small rocket probably won't be for a larger vehicle.

Despite the growing workload to support commercial activities, the agency is working with a limited commercialization budget, said George Nield, the FAA's associate administrator for commercial space transportation. The department, he said, gets about $10 million, which hasn't increased under the continuing resolution. Ninety percent of that budget, he said, goes to employee salaries and benefits.

Despite the flat budget, the office saw launches and re-entries shoot up from 17 in fiscal 2016 to between 36 and 43 in fiscal 2017. He said he expects that number to double by fiscal 2018.

Integrating launches with regular air traffic, he said, is a priority for his office, and he also hopes to advance work with the Defense Department on what amounts to space traffic control. To do that, he said, FAA needs authorization to use the space situational data as well as immunity from lawsuits in using the data, just like DOD.

About the Author

Mark Rockwell is a staff writer at FCW.

Before joining FCW, Rockwell was Washington correspondent for Government Security News, where he covered all aspects of homeland security from IT to detection dogs and border security. Over the last 25 years in Washington as a reporter, editor and correspondent, he has covered an increasingly wide array of high-tech issues for publications like Communications Week, Internet Week, Fiber Optics News, tele.com magazine and Wireless Week.

Rockwell received a Jesse H. Neal Award for his work covering telecommunications issues, and is a graduate of James Madison University.

Click here for previous articles by Rockwell. Contact him at mrockwell@fcw.com or follow him on Twitter at @MRockwell4.


The Fed 100

Save the date for 28th annual Federal 100 Awards Gala.

Featured

  • computer network

    How Einstein changes the way government does business

    The Department of Commerce is revising its confidentiality agreement for statistical data survey respondents to reflect the fact that the Department of Homeland Security could see some of that data if it is captured by the Einstein system.

  • Defense Secretary Jim Mattis. Army photo by Monica King. Jan. 26, 2017.

    Mattis mulls consolidation in IT, cyber

    In a Feb. 17 memo, Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told senior leadership to establish teams to look for duplication across the armed services in business operations, including in IT and cybersecurity.

  • Image from Shutterstock.com

    DHS vague on rules for election aid, say states

    State election officials had more questions than answers after a Department of Homeland Security presentation on the designation of election systems as critical U.S. infrastructure.

  • Org Chart Stock Art - Shutterstock

    How the hiring freeze targets millennials

    The government desperately needs younger talent to replace an aging workforce, and experts say that a freeze on hiring doesn't help.

  • Shutterstock image: healthcare digital interface.

    VA moves ahead with homegrown scheduling IT

    The Department of Veterans Affairs will test an internally developed scheduling module at primary care sites nationwide to see if it's ready to service the entire agency.

  • Shutterstock images (honglouwawa & 0beron): Bitcoin image overlay replaced with a dollar sign on a hardware circuit.

    MGT Act poised for a comeback

    After missing in the last Congress, drafters of a bill to encourage cloud adoption are looking for a new plan.

Reader comments

Please post your comments here. Comments are moderated, so they may not appear immediately after submitting. We will not post comments that we consider abusive or off-topic.

Please type the letters/numbers you see above

More from 1105 Public Sector Media Group