FAA's Space Office Fares Well in Senate FY2017 Appropriations Bill

FAA's Space Office Fares Well in Senate FY2017 Appropriations Bill

The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) would receive its full request of $19.8 million for FY2017 under the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill reported from the Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday.  Commercial space launch would get another $4.5 million in other sections of the bill ($2 million for integration into the National Air Space and $2.5 million for safety).  The committee also weighed in on the issue of obtaining insurance for property damage from launch accidents on non-federal property.

FAA/AST is funded as part of the FAA Operations budget.  The FY2017 request is $19.826 million, an increase of $2.026 million above FY2016’s $17.800 million.  FAA/AST and its advocates had to fight to get that $17.8 million last year after the House Appropriations Committee held the office to its FY2015 funding level of $16.6 million instead of approving the $18.1 million requested.  Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) managed to get $250,000 added during House floor consideration of the bill, but the Senate increased it to $17.4 million and conferees on the final appropriations bill added a bit to reach the $17.8 million total.

This year, the Senate committee is first to act and it approved the full FY2017 request in its report (S. Rept. 114-243) on the T-HUD bill (S. 2844).

FAA/AST regulates and facilitates the commercial space launch industry.  Companies wanting to launch payloads to suborbital or orbital destinations, or bring them back to Earth, need an FAA license.  FAA/AST also licenses spaceports and is involved in accident investigations for commercial launch failures like those of Orbital Sciences and Virgin Galactic in October 2014 and SpaceX in June 2015.   The office’s workload continues to grow as more companies enter the launch services business, hence the need for a bigger budget to pay for more staff positions.  The FY2017 request would fund 19 additional full time equivalents (FTEs), bringing the office’s staff up to 111 FTEs.  

Bridenstine’s recently introduced American Space Renaissance Act envisions an expanded role for FAA/AST in areas like space situational awareness.  It would authorize $43.2 million for FY2017, growing to $99 million by FY2021.  For now, however, Congress is dealing with the President’s request of $19.826 million.

The FAA also has a small amount for commercial space transportation in the Research, Engineering, and Development (RE&D) account to fund safety-related research at FAA/AST’s Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation (COE CST) and elsewhere.  As part of the $97.9 million request for RE&D safety, $2.953 million is for commercial space transportation safety.  The Senate committee approved $2.473 million (it is labeled commercial space transportation “security”).   Congress appropriated $2 million for this activity in FY2016.

Another $2 million is requested as part of $20 million for Air Traffic Management (ATM) in the Facilities and Equipment (F&E) account for commercial space integration into the National Air Space (NAS). The funding is to allow commercial space launches and reentries to occur without significant disruption to space and air operators.  The Senate committee approved the full $20 million for ATM, which presumably includes the $2 million for commercial space integration.

One of FAA/AST’s responsibilities is establishing requirements for commercial space launch companies to obtain insurance in case of launch accidents.  The Orbital Sciences (now Orbital ATK) Antares failure in October 2014 at the Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (MARS) at Wallops Island, VA highlighted a grey area when the launch site is owned by a non-federal entity.  In that case, MARS is owned by the Commonwealth of Virginia, but is located at a federal launch range — NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility.

The committee included report language calling on the FAA to update those insurance regulations.  “The Committee understands that current FAA regulations requiring launch providers to clearly obtain insurance to cover property damage in the event of an accident fail to address the status of State and local property.”  In the case of federal property assigned to a State government, especially at a federal launch range, “the State government should qualify as a ‘contractor’ or Government Launch Participant with the right to make claims under 14 CFR 440.9(d).”  The language is not directive, saying only that the committee “believes” FAA should make that change.

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