NewSpace vs. Big Rocket: FAA’s Overhaul of Launch Regs Splits Industry

Two Launches in One Week: On Aug. 14, 2017, a Falcon 9 launch vehicle lifts off Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in the photo on the left. It was carrying a Dragon resupply spacecraft to the International Space Station. In the image on the right, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket lifts off Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station on Aug.18, 2017 placing in orbit NASA’s Tracking and Data Relay Satellite. (Credit: NASA/Tony Gray and Sandra Joseph)

by Douglas Messier
Managing Editor

According to who you talk to, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) proposed streamlining of launch and re-entry regulations is either a prudent step forward that provides much-needed flexibility while protecting public safety or a a confusing mess that’s a massive step backward.

One one side of the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) is United Launch Alliance (ULA), a joint venture of aerospace titans Boeing and Lockheed Martin that handled nearly all government launches before Elon Musk’s SpaceX began providing much less expensive flights with its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets.

“ULA commends the FAA for its work in developing this NPRM,” the company wrote in a comment submitted to the agency. “The FAA’s continued focus on public safety is appropriate and critical to the long term success of commercial space.

“Under the NPRM, obtaining a license will continue to be a demanding process based on high standards of safety,” ULA said. “Through the NPRM, the FAA has ensured that the bar is not lowered with regard to public safety, while providing a flexible compliance framework that can be tailored to the risks associated with different launch and reentry systems.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF) — whose members include NewSpace heavyweights such as Musk’s SpaceX, Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin and Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic — begs to differ.

“Most current and prospective American commercial space licensees have determined that the FAA’s NPRM is a regression from today’s problematic regulations,” CSF President Eric Stallmer said in prepared testimony before the House Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics last month.

” As such, the Commercial Spaceflight Federation,and other entrepreneurial companies we have talked with, support the development of a Supplemental Notice of Proposed Rulemaking, and the active use by the DOT of many available appropriate mechanisms for interaction with stakeholders in developing this revised draft set of rules,” he added.

In his testimony, Stallmer identified the following problems with the proposed regulations:

  • The NPRM is not performance-based. ​Stakeholders recommended setting a performance level that would be supported by guidance documents (i.e. Advisory Circulars) that provide means of compliance that can be easily tailored to a diverse set of vehicles and operations. Instead, the NPRM includes highly-prescriptive requirements, such as for software and flight termination systems, that may undermine industry efforts to implement innovative approaches to improve safety.
  • The NPRM adds burdens and cost. It contains a number of new regulations and requirements that do not appear to replace existing rules, but will increase the cost and effort necessary to comply rather than reduce and streamline the process-all without improving safety.
  • The NPRM is confusing and relies on missing documents. Stakeholders have already highlighted in public comment dozens of areas where the rule lacks adequate clarity, supporting information (i.e. guidance documents), cost analysis, and adequate justification of new prescriptive regulatory requirements.
  • The NPRM lacks flexibility. The rule misses the mark on allowing an applicant to work with the FAA to “tailor”the requirements to specific programs or to allow for new technology. The agency’s approach risks being quickly outdated and discouraging innovation.
  • The NPRM is anti-competitive. Technical requirements lack the clarity for even experienced launch operators to understand their purpose,while new and prescriptive requirements favor experienced operators to the detriment of new entrants. The NPRM also discourages operations from USG Ranges, thereby favoring operators who locate elsewhere, including outside the U.S.
  • The NPRM attempts to“fix” things that were not broken. The NPRM’s collision avoidance analysis process does not work with the current Air Force practice. This is one of many examples where the FAA’s proposed rule conflicts with parts of the current licensing process that function effectively.

The FAA has extended the period for public comment on the regulatory overhaul until Aug. 19. It is the second extension of the comment period, which was originally scheduled to end on June 14.