GAO: FAA Space Office May Need More Resources, But Does Poor Job Justifying It

GAO: FAA Space Office May Need More Resources, But Does Poor Job Justifying It

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) said today that the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA’s) Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) may need more resources to cope with the recent rise in commercial space launch licenses, but does a poor job of justifying it in budget requests to Congress.  It also pointed out that the moratorium on the FAA creating new regulations for the commercial human spaceflight expires at the end of this month.   Rep. Lamar Smith (R-TX), chairman of the House Science, Space, and Technology Committee, who requested the report, said it underscores the need for Congress to reach agreement on pending legislation to extend the moratorium.

The report reviews the growth in the U.S. commercial space launch business, which is regulated and facilitated by AST.  U.S. companies conducted 11 orbital commercial launches in 2014; in 2011 there were none.  The industry is expected to continue growing, and FAA requested a 16 percent increase in staff in its FY2016 budget request, but GAO said no detailed justification was provided.

FAA/AST is asking for a $1.5 million increase in its budget, from $16.605 million to $18.114 million, to add 13 full time equivalent staff positions for a new total of 92.   Congress has not been entirely supportive.  The House-passed Transportation-HUD appropriations bill provided only a $250,000 increase, and that was added during floor debate, not by the appropriators.  The Senate Appropriations Committee recommended an $820 million increase, $689 million less than the request.

AST not only is handling an increase in applications for launch licenses, but also is involved in several accident investigations:  the October 28, 2014 Orbital Sciences Corporation Antares failure; the October 31, 2014 SpaceShipTwo crash; and the June 28, 2015 SpaceX Falcon 9 failure.  Although FAA regulations put the companies in charge of such investigations, AST is a key participant, making those investigations an additional drain on resources.  The National Transportation Safety Board’s (NTSB’s) review of the SpaceShipTwo crash faulted some of AST’s actions in licensing that test, although it was not the probable cause.  (Separately, a recent NASA Inspector General report raises questions about NASA’s involvement in the Antares investigation.)

GAO looked more broadly at AST’s set of responsibilities amid a steep rise in the commercial space launch business in today’s report.  Its bottom line is that Congress lacks the information it needs to assess what resources are needed.  The report’s one recommendation is that the Secretary of Transportation direct the FAA Administrator to provide that data.

Regarding the September 30, 2015 expiration of the moratorium on new regulations for commercial human spaceflight, GAO said that “most” of the representatives of commercial space launch companies it interviewed were in favor of extending it again (it was already extended in 2012).  Also called a “learning period,” the provision originally enacted in 2004 prohibits FAA from creating new regulations governing the safety of crew and passengers while the industry gains sufficient experience to inform any such regulations.  The FAA/AST’s primary responsibility is protecting the uninvolved public (third parties) from a safety standpoint.  Whether or not the learning period should be extended has been a source of friction between AST and its Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC).  AST head George Nield does not want it extended while COMSTAC does.

The House passed the Spurring Private Aerospace Competitiveness and Entrepreneurship (SPACE), H.R. 2262, in May, which would extend the learning period to December 31, 2025.  House SS&T Chairman Smith said today that the GAO report underscores the importance of finalizing action on that bill. The Senate-passed version of a related bill, S. 1297, would extend it to 2020. 

Smith also said AST should “maximize its current resources,” including the use of overtime and “facilitating the development of industry standards to respond to increased workloads,” but the committee “will work with the FAA to ensure it has the resources it needs to ensure a healthy and safe domestic commercial space sector.”  House SS&T is an authorizing committee that sets policy and recommends funding levels, but only the appropriations committees actually provide funding.  No reaction from the House or Senate appropriations committees was evident today.

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