When Americans think of the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), the first thought that comes to mind is commercial air travel. Everyone knows the FAA manages airspace and sets regulations that ensure passengers are kept safe on more than 44,000 flights daily. What is far less understood — and appreciated — is the safety role the FAA plays for those on the ground and in nearby airspace during rocket launches.
This is not a new endeavor. Our nation has been launching rockets into space since the 1950s, and the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been licensing commercial rocket launches since it was established in 1984. The commercial space industry is taking off, literally, and as a result new players are trying to establish themselves. As with any industry, startups are looking to disrupt the current marketplace and create rules of the road tailored to their own particular solution. While I applaud industry partners for pushing the proverbial and literal boundaries, this is also why federal regulators exist: to establish rules of engagement that protect the public interest, especially on complex issues like commercial space launch and reentry.
As a Republican serving in Congress, I spent much of my career fighting government overreach and overregulation. But there are areas where regulation is appropriate, and space launch, like air travel, is one of them. During my tenure as chairman of the House Transportation aviation subcommittee, it became apparent to me and my colleagues that streamlining the current set of launch licensing regulations could be a boon to the U.S. commercial space industry. The Trump administration agreed, which is why it issued Space Policy Directive 2 to harmonize existing regulations.
In April, the FAA published a proposed rule that would streamline the existing launch licensing process. It proposes consolidation of different license types and allows for flexibility during the license application and compliance processes. It better aligns commercial licensing rules with existing U.S. Air Force regulations to ensure a sense of uniformity across federal partners. Critically, in recognizing that innovation and new technologies will continue to evolve long after the rule is finalized, the Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) creates a process for companies to put forth and eventually adopt new and innovative ways to meet safety requirements.
This NPRM reflects broad consensus from the industry. The FAA convened an Aviation Rulemaking Committee (ARC) that included a diverse range of companies and organizations, including SpaceX, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, ULA, Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman, Virgin Galactic, the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, and the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. More than 70% of the ARC’s inputs can be found in the NPRM, which is a true testament to the FAA’s ability to listen and execute.
The FAA is on track to meet the goal of Space Policy Directive 2 to “encourage American leadership in space commerce” by ensuring more energy is expended reaching the skies than navigating the bureaucracy. As with all commercial transportation operations, idle vehicles do not increase revenues, create new jobs or spur economic growth. There is still room for improvement as the FAA moves toward a final rule next fall, but so far they have done a solid job striking the balance between efficiency and safety.
Since the NPRM was published the FAA has been especially transparent with its work, keeping industry and government stakeholders in the loop on their methodical approach. Despite these open lines of communication, however, there are those who oppose the current NPRM and are searching for any way to disrupt the rulemaking process. This is regrettable, but not unexpected. In my more than two decades of federal experience, companies with little exposure to the rulemaking process often initially overreact when they are not allowed to write their own regulations. I am confident that if the FAA maintains constant communication with stakeholders, cooler heads will prevail and the entire commercial space industry will move forward together when the final rule is published.
Bottom line: if the United States is to lead the world in space, we need companies to set up shop here. To be more business-friendly, we must reduce the regulatory burden such as eliminating duplicative applications and meaningless paperwork when applying for a launch license. It also means ensuring a robust culture of safety that protects lives and property. From my perspective, the FAA is on the path to a safer, more efficient licensing process. All commercial space partners should encourage, rather than disrupt, this approach.
The Honorable Frank LoBiondo was chairman of the House Transportation Committee’s subcommittee on aviation from 2013-2019. He served 12 terms in Congress before retiring in January 2019. He is CEO of LoBo Strategies LLC and currently an adviser to United Launch Alliance.