FAA Space Office Gets Partial Increase While COMSTAC Recommends Increased Scope

FAA Space Office Gets Partial Increase While COMSTAC Recommends Increased Scope

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) will get $17.8 million for FY2016 in the final version of the appropriations bill congressional negotiators agreed to overnight.  It is more than FY2015, but less than what the President requested.  At the same time, AST’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) is recommending that AST expand the scope of its activities to engage with the European Space Agency (ESA) on its Moon Village concept.

The FAA is funded as part of the Transportation-Housing and Urban Development (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  All 12 FY2016 appropriations bills have been consolidated into a single “omnibus” appropriations bill, H.R. 2029, for consideration by Congress.   T-HUD is Division L of the bill, which is posted on the website of the House Rules Committee along with accompanying explanatory statements.

The majority of AST’s funding comes from the FAA’s Operations budget.  The President requested $18.144 million for FY2016, a $1.5 million increase over its FY2015 budget of $16.605 million.  In its version of the T-HUD bill, the House provided only a $250,000 increase over FY2015 and that was added during debate on the House floor, not by the House Appropriations Committee.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended $17.425 million in its version of the bill.

The final bill is a bit better than that.  AST will get $17.8 million, $1.2 million more than last year, but still short of the President’s request.

The FAA also requested $3 million for “Commercial Space Transportation Safety” in the Research, Engineering & Development (RE&D) part its budget and $2 million for “commercial space integration” into the National Air Space as part of its $13.7 million request for Air Traffic Management (ATM) under the Facilities & Equipment (F&E) budget. The final agreement provides $2 million instead of $3 million in RE&D (with a notation that FY2015 funding was “buried in NextGen Air Ground Integration per FY14 congressional language”).  The full $13.7 million for ATM in F&E is provided in the final bill, but it does not break that total down to the level of detail needed to confirm the $2 million for commercial space integration is fully funded.

Eric Stallmer, President of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, praised the increase for AST, but added that “their budget will continue to constrain their ability to fulfill their responsibilities to industry as it is projected to grow.”

AST facilitates and regulates the commercial space launch industry and its activities are growing with increased demand for commercial orbital and suborbital launch and reentry licenses.  The recently enacted Commercial Space Transportation Competitiveness Act directs AST to take certain actions (such as adding a new category of “government astronaut” to the type of passengers on a commercial human spaceflight and continuing to provide indemnification for certain amounts of third party liability in the event of a commercial launch accident that harms the uninvolved public) and prohibits others (especially creating new regulations governing commercial human spaceflight until 2023). 

Some envision AST’s role expanding into other areas as well, including commercial activities beyond Earth orbit.  AST Associate Administrator George Nield recently endorsed a concept put forward by ESA Director General Jan Woerner to build a “Moon Village” on the far side of the Moon, but with commercial as well as governmental partners. 

During a teleconference meeting last Thursday (December 10),  COMSTAC heard directly from Woerner about his Moon Village concept and discussed a draft recommendation that AST “engage directly” with ESA to foster the participation of U.S. commercial entities in ESA’s planning activities.   COMSTAC later unanimously approved the recommendation though an email vote according to COMSTAC chairman Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace.  The text is as follows:


During the discussion on Thursday, a COMSTAC member asked whether the committee was “overreaching” AST’s jurisdiction by not separating out commercial launch activities from other activities that would be involved in establishing a lunar village. Gold said that the committee has not hesitated to weigh in on issues, including export control reform, that affect, but may not be directly related to, the commercial launch business.  He added that COMSTAC will review its charter and bylaws at its next meeting to ensure it is written broadly enough to encompass such topics.  COMSTAC member Mark Sundahl added that COMSTAC’s jurisdiction is “growing all the time” and as long as an activity is at least “tangentially” related to launch, it is within scope.

Indeed, when Nield endorsed the Moon Village concept, he made it clear his interest is in commercial activities well beyond launch, calling the opportunities “limitless.”  He noted, as have many others, that no U.S. government agency has yet been
assigned the task of authorizing or supervising such commercial
activities in space.   Article VI of the 1967 Outer Space Treaty requires that
“activities of non-governmental entities in outer space, including the
moon and other celestial bodies, shall require authorization and
continuing supervision” by the relevant State party to the treaty.  
Some in the commercial space sector argue that AST’s responsibilities
should be expanded to include that role.  Others think the Department of Commerce’s Office of Space
Commerce would be a better fit.  The new commercial space law directs the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) to study and make recommendations on “an authorization and supervision approach that would prioritize safety, utilize existing authorities, minimize burdens to the industry, promote the U.S. commercial space sector, and meet the United States obligations under international treaties.”

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