FAA Introduces New System to Clear Airspace More Quickly Around Launches and Reentries

FAA Introduces New System to Clear Airspace More Quickly Around Launches and Reentries

While space geeks thrill at the sight of launches and reentries, airline passengers trying to make a meeting or special family event may be more interested in reaching their destinations on time. The FAA has just activated a new system to reduce the amount of time airspace must be closed to help satisfy complaints from the airline industry and its supporters in Congress.

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) regulates, facilitates and promotes the commercial space launch and reentry business, while its Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is responsible for safe and efficient navigation through the National Airspace System (NAS).

Together they have developed the Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to reduce how long ATO must close airspace around space launches and reentries.

The system is voluntary. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly, and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation are current partners. SDI was first used operationally for SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch last week and is being used for the SpaceX-22 Cargo Dragon reentry today.

Ironically, the Transporter-2 launch had to be postponed when a helicopter violated the airspace closure prompting a rebuke from SpaceX founder and chief engineer Elon Musk.

The growth in the number of commercial space launches and reentries licensed by the FAA and resulting diversion of airliners from their normal routes is creating friction not only in the airline community, but Congress. It was the top question from Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-OR), chair of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) committee, at a June 16 hearing on the FAA’s role in the future of spaceflight.

First, I want to hear what the FAA and the industry are doing to minimize the disruption to the air traffic system associated with commercial space launches and reentries. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the FAA re-routed 1,200 flights, adding in the aggregate 39,000 track miles to their routes, just to accommodate the commercial space industry’s needs.

I will give the FAA credit for being so conservative when determining how much airspace to block off and for how long. Of course, safety is never subject to negotiation or compromise, and the FAA has rightly given commercial space operations a wide berth to protect the safety of aircraft in flight.

… I also understand that the FAA is working on a system called the Space Data Integrator that will allow for more narrowly tailored airspace closures and designations of hazard areas, minimizing the disruptions caused by commercial space activity. I would like an update from our government witnesses on the status of deployment of those initiatives so we can ensure that millionaires and billionaires flying to space for a photo-op in the future won’t inconvenience thousands if not millions of airline passengers.

FAA/AST Associate Administrator Wayne Monteith told DeFazio at the hearing that operational tests of SDI were expected “in the next few months.” At a media briefing today, just three weeks later, he revealed SDI now is active.

He gave a lot of the credit to ATO. Although AST worked on SDI for a decade, “we have seen tremendous progress in just the last few years” since Teri Bristol, ATO’s Chief Operating Officer,” took “this responsibility on with our technical help and our liaison to the industry.”

Space operators now are voluntarily sharing telemetry data including vehicle position, altitude and speed, as well as data if the vehicle deviates from its expected flight path. Asked when additional companies might join, Monteith said he would have to defer to ATO to answer that question.

The FAA managed 45 launches and reentries in calendar year 2020 and expects that number will rise to 70 or more this year.

Using the automated SDI system coupled with “time-based procedures and dynamic windows,” the FAA expects to be able to shorten airspace closures “from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours” and eventually less.

SDI is at least a step in the direction desired by the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). At the hearing, ALPA’s President, Capt. Joe DePete, credited the FAA and the space industry with progress in what he called “spaceflight accommodation,”  but argued it is not “integration.”  He wants a “comprehensive strategy” to reduce impacts of spaceflight on the National Airspace System.  That includes not only launches and intentional reentries, but potential threats to aircraft from reentering debris and uncontrolled reentries like China’s Long March-5B.

We are concerned that without a strategy, safety risks may either be under-rated or unidentified altogether. However, it is important to note that we are not asking the FAA to regulate the Commercial Space industry as if they are starting from square one or to dramatically impose severe constraints. The industry is very successful at what they do, and each successful rocket launch proves this point. Instead, we are encouraging all stakeholders to jointly develop and define a goal for the future and then ensure that each decision point made along the way is consistent with that envisioned operational future. If we do not have a common goal in mind, and if it is not a shared goal, then we cannot create a shared mental model of the various strategies that we can collectively and individually use to reach the envisioned level of safety with full operational integration.


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