To the Stratosphere . . . and Beyond

By Dan Elwell, FAA Acting Administrator

Commercial space has triggered a rebirth in the interest of not just what lies on the edges of our atmosphere but of creativity itself. Aerospace visionaries are the catalysts for what is very clearly the dawn of a new generation for space transportation, exploration, innovation, and commerce.

Looking back in history, trade routes started on land, moved to the sea, and then to the sky. Today, they’re set firmly on the final frontier.

Since October 2018, the FAA has licensed 21 launches and one reentry to place dozens of payloads in orbit. Virgin Galactic launched in December 2018 and in February 2019, with a total of five commercial astronauts. SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy had its first commercial launch in April. The FAA supported three commercial launches in less than 72 hours in May, including one in New Zealand.

But the most important thing that happened so far this year is nothing—no fatalities and no missions delayed because of licensing.

This administration said that government needed to hold the door open for innovators. The FAA’s proposed streamlined launch and reentry rule was published in draft form in March. We’ve received dozens of comments so far and have extended the comment period to July 30.

As mandated by the recent FAA reauthorization, we’ve created an Office of Spaceports within the Office of Commercial Space Transportation that will act as the central point of contact for all spaceport activities, and the agency is consulting with industry and government. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation is reorganizing to increase efficiency, as the licensing workload is increasing substantially, and we must meet the expectations of performance-based rules.

Additionally, both the Spaceports Categorization and the Airspace Access Aviation Rulemaking Committees (ARCs) have made considerable progress. The Airspace Access ARC is expected to release its final report any day. The Spaceports ARC has sent the FAA its recommendations; and while a specific categorization scheme was not identified, the committee provided a lot of insight.

The Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) has also been busy. Committee members visited the FAA’s Command Center in Warrenton, Va., to learn more about how collaborative decision-making—a game-changer for commercial aviation—works and how it might be applied to the commercial space transportation industry. They also viewed the Space Data Integrator project. We’re looking for ways in which we can accelerate these technologies into space. We don’t just want to integrate commercial space operations into the national airspace system more quickly and efficiently—we need to.

The FAA is committed to continuing to advocate for the U.S. commercial space transportation industry with our colleagues across the globe. We look forward to working with industry and our interagency partners to maintain American competitiveness in this critical industry.

Air carriers recognize that there’s money to be made for all when everyone is working together. Safety and efficiency go hand in hand. You can’t have one without the other. This kind of forward-leaning, proactive attention will help keep the commercial space industry safe now and for years to come.

Safety must be the hinge on which a company turns. If not, the company will not survive. The safest businesses—in the long run—are the most profitable. When you cut corners, you’re actually cutting profits. It might not catch up with you right away. But make no mistake, it will, and it will do so in spectacular fashion.

Safety has to be the underpinning for everything we do. This industry can ill afford the barnstorming reputation that beset aviation a hundred years ago. The flying public won’t stand for it, because aviation safety is a given.

Today it’s a commercial airline flight to Albuquerque, N.M. Tomorrow it will be a commercial space flight in low Earth orbit. Either way, passengers will expect the same level of safety. This industry is up to the task. Ours is not a countdown to liftoff; it’s a countdown to safety. And from where I stand, we’re well on the way.

This article was originally published in the June 2019 issue of Air Line Pilot.

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