Safety Must Be Top Priority As Rockets Get Integrated into National Airspace System

Safety Must Be Top Priority As Rockets Get Integrated into National Airspace System

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) and representatives of three commercial space launch companies told Congress today that safety must be the top priority as space launches are integrated into the National Airspace System (NAS).  The increasing cadence of launches and growing number of spaceports make that integration essential.  Information technology (IT), such as the FAA’s new Space Data Integrator, will be one of the solutions.

ALPA, Blue Origin, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance (ULA) testified to the Aviation Subcommittee of the House Transportation and Infrastructure (T&I) at a hearing on stakeholder perspectives on revising commercial space launch regulations.

President Trump signed Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2) last month, which gave the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST) a deadline of February 1, 2019 to review and revise its regulations.

Several committee members wondered if that deadline is realistic, but witnesses pointed out that the date refers to issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM), not final action.  The NPRM starts a process to solicit public input.  That typically is followed by issuance of a draft rule, another round of public comment, perhaps an interim rule and ultimately the final rule.

Blue Origin Deputy General Counsel Audrey Powers said that it is yet to be determined how long the process will take in its entirety. ALPA President Tim Canoli assured the subcommittee that “safety will always take precedence over timelines.”

Rep. Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) chairs hearing on commercial space transportation regulatory reform, June 26, 2018.

The review process will look at the broad scope of regulations affecting the commercial space launch business, but today’s hearing focused in large part on how to integrate space launches into the NAS.  Right now, the FAA must close the airspace around launch sites before and during launches, diverting flights from their normal routes.  With the increasing cadence of launches and growing number of spaceports around the country, the FAA needs modern tools to deconflict those operations.

In a report submitted to the subcommittee at the hearing, ALPA spelled out the impact February’s SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch had on aviation operations:  563 flights were delayed; 34,381 additional nautical miles were flown (an additional 62 nautical miles on average per flight); 4,645 total minutes delayed (average of 8 minute delay per flight); and Orlando International Airport experienced 62 departure and 59 arrival delays.

With more companies planning to launch rockets from, and in some cases land them back at, Cape Canaveral and NASA’s adjacent Kennedy Space Center, and more spaceports for suborbital and orbital launches around the country being planned, the problem will worsen without innovative technical and policy solutions.

ALPA’s Canoli said the FAA needs a”comprehensive plan” that will require “a significant amount of planning and investment.”  He listed a number of policies that need to be established regarding spacecraft airworthiness and certification; flight crew qualifications and training for human spaceflight operations; airspace redesign and procedure deconfliction; separation standards; traffic flow management tools; and enhancement to Air Traffic Control (ATC) automation tools.

The FAA already is developing a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to automate what is now a manual process to close and release airspace during launches.  Subcommittee chairman Frank LoBiondo (R-NJ) proudly pointed out that it is being developed at the FAA’s Technical Center in his district.

The FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO) is requesting $7 million in FY2019 for SDI development.  The House Appropriations Committee approved the requested amount, while the Senate Appropriations Committee added another $2 million.

SpaceX Senior Counsel Caryn Schenewerk explained that for a Falcon 9 launch, the “box” that defines the restricted airspace is hundreds of miles in length along the rocket’s trajectory.  Currently, that airspace remains closed throughout the launch because air traffic controllers do not have access to real-time data.  With new IT solutions, it could be reopened as soon as the rocket passed through a piece of airspace and it was clear no debris-creating “unintended disassembly” had occurred.

In all of this, the witnesses and subcommittee members agreed, safety must be paramount.  “The safety of the traveling public needs to be the highest priority for the FAA and the aerospace industry,” Canoli insisted. ULA’s Associate General Counsel-Regulatory Affairs Kelly Gareheime agreed, but for other reasons.   “As reform efforts go forward, we must take great care to not sacrifice safety for convenience.  In the launch business, when something goes wrong, it impacts everyone.”

Blue Origin’s Powers said her company is eager to work with the government and others in industry “to ensure that new rules and regulations promote safety above all, while also supporting the expansion of this new and varied set of commercial reusable systems.”  SpaceX’s Schenewerk called for federal regulations that “keep pace with the speed of innovation, while maintaining public safety and ensuring the efficient and fully integrated use” of the NAS “through modern technology.”

Gareheime pointed out that a Streamlined  Launch and Reentry Licensing Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) recently established by the FAA was a “good forum for industry stakeholders” to provide their input.  ULA worries, however, that the short timeline on which it operated may mean final regulations will not take those views into account.  Instead, she said, the FAA may “rely heavily on inputs provided by a select group of new and aspiring launch companies that the FAA has been meeting with in private … for more than a year.  ULA was not included in these conversations.”

Powers, however, thinks the ARC has indeed informed the FAA process.  She listed seven characteristics of new regulations the group coalesced around to solve problems with the current system.  One of those is that regulations should be performance-based, not prescriptive.   Gareheime said ULA prefers a performance-based approach, but only if it addresses its disadvantages — “the risk of oversimplication that could incentivize launch service providers to cut corners to the point that public safety is compromised.  Enforcement and compliance monitoring on the government side could also be complicated by different providers using significantly different methods. ”

The hearing illustrated the diversity of stakeholders and viewpoints in this regulatory reform effort.  It also highlighted that more than one House committee has an interest in the topic.  House T&I has jurisdiction over aviation safety, FAA, and the Department of Transportation (DOT, of which FAA is part) generally.  Ranking Member Rick Larsen (D-WA), who noted that his Seattle-area district includes many employees of Blue Origin and SpaceX, said that he is one of 10 members of the T&I committee who also serve on the House Armed Services Committee and it is past time for them to get together to discuss “crossover” DOD-DOT interests.  The House Science, Space, and Technology Committee has oversight of “commercial space activities relating to the Department of Transportation,” including FAA/AST, although the T&I Aviation Subcommittee also claims jurisdiction over “commercial space transportation and tourism.”

It all presages a challenging road ahead, SPD-2’s deadline notwithstanding. live tweeted the hearing.  Check our Twitter feed (@SpcPlcyOnline) for more of what was discussed.

Note: This article has been updated.

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