"Policy, Research and Operations"
Michael G. Whitaker, Washington, DC
February 5, 2014
17th Annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference
Thank you, George [Nield]. Good afternoon. I am relatively new to the FAA – actually, anyone with less than 20 years is considered “new” at the FAA! I have been here eight months now – but I am not new to aviation. I spent over 20 years in the airline business before joining the FAA.
I have a lot of experience with aircraft that fly horizontally … and rarely venture above 38,000 feet. I confess to not having had much experience in commercial space – and I rarely used terms such as suborbital or geosynchronous. But I can say now that it is undoubtedly one of the most exciting and interesting areas of my work at the FAA. And one of the fastest growing.
There is a lot going on. From a policy perspective – the President recently issued an important new policy concerning commercial space transportation. From a research perspective – there is a lot of interesting research underway. And first and foremost, operationally – there is a lot happening in the marketplace as we work to keep up with fast changing technologies and a dramatic increase in space launches.
So this afternoon I would like to talk about these three aspects of commercial space – policy, research and operations – from the FAA’s perspective.
First, operations … and some context. There were three commercial launches in the U.S. in 2012. There were that many commercial launches just in the second week of January this year:
- SpaceX launched at the Kennedy Space Center …
- Orbital Sciences at Wallops Island, Virginia …
- and Scaled Composites conducted a suborbital flight test of SpaceShipTwo at the Mojave Air and Space Port.
Space-X alone has nearly 50 launches on its manifest, over half of which are with commercial customers. This represents a significant resurgence in American competitiveness in the international launch services market.
Commercial space tourism is just around the corner. This is a big new market that has been talked about for a while, and is now about to come to fruition. It too will be fueled by private industry. Space tourism will be possible because of recent advances in both composite structures and innovative propulsion systems.
Finally, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has more than two dozen ‘pre-application consultations” – new ideas that have been proposed, including proposals for new vehicles, new spaceports, safety approvals and requests for payload reviews.
This is all very exciting but it presents challenges for the FAA – an agency whose operational focus has always been to regulate and operate a safe National Air Space (or NAS). And the NAS is by its nature a horizontal system!
How do you balance these competing business models and operating systems? We have always focused on safe and efficient operations of this horizontal system: minimizing delays in the system.
How do we balance that against the important economic benefits of the vertical operations of commercial space? This is not an apples-to-oranges problem. This is apples-to-rhubarb! And we are not always sure what to do with the rhubarb!
As you know, we currently approve commercial launches on a case-by-case basis. But as the commercial space industry expands, we need to be able to regularly and consistently integrate this traffic into the national airspace system. In the horizontal system we use file-and-fly. I am not sure we will get there very soon for commercial launches, but we have to make the process more routine.
We have to equitably and efficiently balance the needs of commercial space users with traditional airspace users, such as commercial and general aviation. The FAA’s Air Traffic Organization and our Office of Commercial Space Transportation are working to establish the processes and procedures for this integration. That’s Operations.
In the new budget that just passed, Congress allocated one million dollars of research funds specifically to support and maintain the FAA Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation. This is a great demonstration of support and recognition of the importance of this emerging industry.
The Center’s most important research area is safety: the safety of space transportation, the safety of humans, and the safety of vehicles. For example, there is research on the health of space flight candidates. Traditional research has focused on the safety of adult astronauts, mostly young to mid-life, healthy individuals. But as commercial space tourism may include children and older people, we’re supporting research focused on these demographic groups as well.
As a secondary goal, we have a research area dedicated to the viability of this industry. This area addresses questions about the industry’s structure, economics, law, governance and regulation.
The Center includes nine universities, which combined, bring more than 50 government, industry and academic organizations together as research partners.
There is also significant research going on elsewhere in the government. DARPA, the Defense department’s research agency, is developing a new program called the Experimental Spaceplane, or XS-1. DARPA hopes to demonstrate the viability of a low-cost launch vehicle for taking small payloads into low earth orbit. This would be a reusable vehicle that could be manned or unmanned and serve both government and commercial markets. Like other DARPA research, this work could lead to later development of similar commercial capabilities that could be operated by private companies.
And there is constant research and innovation taking place in the private sector, in addition to the two dozen pre-applications consultations that are underway between FAA and industry. Last year, we granted an experimental permit to Scaled Composites, authorizing it to conduct rocket-powered flights of SpaceShipTwo to suborbital altitudes. So far, the company has completed three tests in Mojave, California.
Eventually, the system will be operated by Virgin Galactic from Spaceport America in New Mexico. Two other companies, XCOR and Blue Origin, are also making progress on developing new suborbital vehicles to carry tourists.
Last month, NASA received proposals from industry for the next phase of their Commercial Crew program. The goal of this program is to develop vehicles to transport astronauts – in addition to cargo – to the space station by the end of 2017, an impressive time frame for this type of endeavor. Again, an example of public-private partnership. These crew missions will be licensed by the FAA.
Which brings us to Policy
In November, the President signed a new “National Space Transportation Policy.” The document, signed as a Presidential Policy Directive, provides comprehensive guidance to all federal departments and agencies on national priorities, and roles and responsibilities in space transportation. The President’s policy is significant in a couple of key ways. First and foremost, the policy recognizes the contribution that commercial space makes to the U.S. economy – in the ways I previously mentioned. The policy explicitly recognizes the importance of industry in the space industry.
Second, the new policy tasks government agencies to work together to support the industry. This is a point worth emphasizing: the need for agencies to work together and with industry to support commercial space. A great example of this cooperation is found at the Kennedy Space Center, a national landmark that is undergoing a transition as assets are transferred to the private sector. I visited the Space Center last month and was struck by the degree to which it has changed. I toured Space Launch Complex 40 at Cape Canaveral, which had just been used to launch a Space X Falcon 9 rocket carrying a Thaicom 6 satellite the week before.
SpaceX completely repurposed the facility into a streamlined launch facility that can quickly be cycled for re-use. But I also visited the Air Force launch control center, NASA facilities, and the FAA offices. Collaboration between these government entities – and between these agencies and industry – is key to making the transition to the type of successful public-private partnerships envisioned in the President’s policy.
The new space policy also directs all departments and agencies to cultivate innovation and entrepreneurship through the use of nontraditional acquisition arrangements. This includes the use of fixed price acquisition instead of the traditional cost plus arrangement. The goal here is to encourage the expansion of commercial space transportation beyond the role of government by using commercial style contracts. The government assumes less of the risk of development of new technology, and private companies are incentivized to innovate and operate more efficiently … and potentially see greater profits.
In addition the policy facilitates the sharing of databases containing valuable lessons learned from human space flight. These data, held by NASA and the FAA, will be made available to support commercial development of space transportation.
The new policy also supports continuation of the current indemnification risk-sharing regime. As part of the recent budget agreement, Congress extended the regime for three years. Keeping this risk-sharing regime in place helps U.S. companies remain competitive with foreign launch providers that have similar support from their own governments.
The new policy also reinforces the Department of Transportation’s authority to address orbital space debris mitigation practices for commercial launches.
And finally, the new policy advocates internationally for the adoption of U.S. government safety regulations to enhance global interoperability and safety of commercial space transportation activities.
This is just a snap shot of the many things that are going on in commercial space.
The FAA is committed to supporting the new commercial space era in three key ways. First, through safe integration in the airspace system. Second, by supporting commercial space transportation research … and third, through the President’s new National Space Transportation Policy. As we do that, we look forward to working with all of you, so we can all realize the great benefits of commercial space.