Commercial Space Transportation Activities

Friday, June 19, 2020


The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for ensuring protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States during commercial launch or reentry activities, and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation. To date, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has licensed or permitted more than 370 launches and reentries.


  • An FAA license is required for any launch or reentry, or the operation of any launch or reentry site, by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States.
  • An FAA license is not required for space activities the government carries out for the government, such as some NASA or Department of Defense launches.
  • Once the FAA determines a license application package is complete, the FAA has 180 days to make a licensing determination.
  • The FAA licensing evaluation includes a review of:
    – public safety issues, such as payload contents
    – national security or foreign policy concerns
    – insurance requirements for the launch operator
    – potential environmental impact

Experimental Permits

  • The FAA can issue experimental permits, rather than licenses, for the launch or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets.
  • The FAA issues these permits for:
    – research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques
    – showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license
    – crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or reentry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued
  • No person may operate a reusable suborbital rocket under such a permit for the purpose of carrying any property or human being for compensation or hire.


  • The FAA licenses commercial launch and reentry sites in the United States. The following are FAA currently licensed launch sites:
    – Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, FL
    – Cape Canaveral Spaceport/Shuttle Landing Facility, FL
    – Cecil Field, FL
    – Colorado Air & Space Port, CO
    – Ellington Airport, TX
    – Midland International Airport, TX
    – Mojave Air and Space Port, CA
    – Oklahoma Air and Space Ports, OK
    – Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska, AK
    – Space Coast Regional Spaceport in Titusville, FL
    – Spaceport America, NM
    – Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport, VA


  • The FAA safety inspectors monitor the FAA-licensed activities including launches from foreign countries and international waters.
  • The FAA has the authority to suspend or revoke any license or issue fines when a commercial space operator is not in compliance with statutory or regulatory requirements.
  • Currently, commercial spaceflight crew and participants engage in spaceflight operations through “informed consent.
  • Informed consent regulations require crew and spaceflight participants to be informed, in writing, of mission hazards and risks, vehicle safety record, and the overall safety record of all launch and reentry vehicles.
  • Prior to flight, crew and spaceflight participants must provide their written consent to participate.

Astronaut Wings 

  • An important part of AST’s statutory mission to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space transportation is specifically in support of the continuous improvement of the safety of launch vehicles designed to carry humans.
  • The FAA’s Commercial Astronaut Wings Program is designed to recognize flight crewmembers who further the FAA’s mission to promote the safety of vehicles designed to carry humans.
  • Astronaut Wings are given to flight crew who have demonstrated a safe flight to and return from space on an FAA/AST licensed mission.
  • The FAA issued its first license for commercial human space flight on April 1, 2004 to Scaled Composites for the launch of SpaceShipOne (SS1).
  • The SS1 program was the first private commercial human space flight program.
  • The SS1 was designed to meet the requirements of the Ansari X PRIZE, a $10 Million prize for a reusable launch vehicle that could carry a human to 100 km altitude and repeat the feat within two weeks.
  • As the SS1 progressed through its flight test program in 2004, the FAA established the Commercial Astronaut Wings.
  • The FAA issued the first set of Commercial Astronaut Wings in 2004 to Scaled Composites’ Test Pilots Mike Melvill and Brian Binnie.
  • To be eligible for Astronaut Wings, nominees have to meet the following criteria and submit an application to the FAA:
    – Must be an FAA licensed launch;
    – Must meet the requirements for flight crew qualifications and training under Title 14 of the Code of Federal Regulations, Part 460; and
    – Must demonstrate flight beyond 50 statute miles above the surface of the Earth as flight crew on an FAA licensed or permitted launch reentry vehicle.


  • A mishap is considered an accident if there is a fatality or serious injury to a space flight participant or crew, fatality or serious injury to any person not associated with the flight, or any damage estimated to exceed $25,000 that is not associated with the flight and that is not located at the launch site or designated recovery area.
  • An unplanned event occurring during the flight of a launch vehicle resulting in the known impact of a launch vehicle, its payload or any of its components outside the designated impact limits or landing site as appropriate for expendable or reusable vehicles, is also considered an accident.
  • The FAA requires commercial operators to file an investigation plan that meets FAA regulations and contains the operator's procedures for reporting and responding to launch accidents, launch incidents, or other mishaps that may occur.
  • The FAA approves and oversees compliance with these investigation plans.

Accident Investigations

  • The FAA and its Office of Commercial Space Transportation ensures that appropriate investigations are conducted for all mishaps and accidents associated with the FAA licensed and permitted operations.
  • The investigation could also include the FAA’s Office of Accident, Prevention and Investigations, the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB), the launch site operator, the vehicle operator, and others.
  • Typically, the FAA will provide government oversight to a mishap investigation and ensure that it complies with the terms of the operator’s FAA-approved investigation plan and the FAA regulatory requirements.
  • The operator is required to provide a report to the FAA, and the FAA must approve any determination of cause for the mishap and also any corrective actions which the operator must take in the interest of public safety.
  • In the case of an accident, under a voluntary cooperative agreement between the FAA and the NTSB, the NTSB will lead the accident investigation with the FAA’s support.
  • The NTSB investigation involves standard NTSB procedures and protocols, with the NTSB determining the probable cause and providing its recommendations.
  • The FAA must review and approve any corrective actions that must be taken in the interest of public safety before the vehicle is authorized to return to flight.

Environmental Review for Licensing and Permitting

  • The licensing of launch and reentry activities and the issuing of experimental permits for reusable suborbital rockets are considered federal actions under the National Environmental Policy Act.
  • The FAA is responsible for analyzing the environmental impacts associated with proposed licensed or permitted activities.
  • The FAA prepares the appropriate environmental documents NEPA requires as part of the review process;
  • The three major levels of NEPA review are Categorical Exclusions, Environmental Assessments (EAs), and Environmental Impact Statements (EISs).
  • These levels of review are described in detail in FAA Order 1050.1F Environmental Impacts: Policies and Procedures.
  • Categorical Exclusions are those types of federal actions that the FAA has found, based on past experience with similar actions, do not normally require an EA or EIS because they do not individually or cumulatively have a significant effect on the human environment, with the exception of extraordinary circumstances.
  • There are non-categorical exclusions for the issuance of launch or reentry licenses, or experimental permits;
  • An EA is a concise document used to describe a proposed action’s anticipated environmental impacts.
  • The purpose of an EA is to determine whether a proposed action or its alternatives has the potential to significantly affect the environment.
  • If the EA on indicates that the proposed action will not result in significant impacts, the responsible FAA official prepares a Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI).
  • The FONSI documents provide the basis or bases for FAA's determination that the action lacks potentially significant environmental impacts.
  • The FONSI does not represent the agency’s decision to implement the proposed action.
  • If the EA indicates the impact of the proposed action meet or exceed a significance threshold(s) for the affected resource(s), or that mitigation would not reduce the significant impact(s) below the applicable threshold(s), the FAA must prepare an EIS.
  • An EIS provides additional, detailed evaluations of the proposed action and its alternatives, including the No Action alternative.
  • Where the FAA anticipates that significant impacts would result, a decision can be made to prepare an EIS without first developing an EA.
  • No sooner than 30 days after notice of the final EIS has been published by EPA in the Federal Register, the FAA may issue a Record of Decision (ROD).
  • The ROD presents the Agency's official decision on the proposed action and identifies any mitigation and monitoring measures.