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The Air Up There Podcast

Ticket to Space

Season 2, Episode 3
Published: Friday, February 26, 2021

Space — it's big, it's dark, and there's so much that we don't know about it yet! In this episode, we'll hear from FAA experts what role the agency plays in commercial space transportation, from licensing to launch and reentry.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Ticket to Space

Ticket to Space

Transcript

Allen Kenitzer:
Hi. I'm Allen Kenitzer.

Dominique Gebru:
I'm Dominique Gebru and you're listening to The Air Up There, a podcast from the FAA.

Allen Kenitzer:
When you think of space, what comes to mind? Most people think about NASA or the Kennedy Space Center down in Florida, but the FAA is actually doing a lot of amazing things when it comes to space and more recently commercial space.

Dominique Gebru:
I'll be honest. When I first started working with the FAA, I didn't realize just how much of a role the agency plays in the commercial space transportation world. Today, we're going to hear from the experts at the FAA, who will walk us through a nice overview of the work we do here.

Allen Kenitzer:
Dominique, I'm really looking forward to hearing those interviews because our colleagues really know their stuff. Before we jump in, let's define a few terms. Throughout this episode, you'll hear the term license. A license identifies a spacecraft by name or mission, and it details each activity that the spacecraft is authorized to do. An FAA license is required for any launch or re-entry and operation of any launch or re-entry site by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world.

Dominique Gebru:
It should also be noted that the FAA has the authority to suspend or revoke any license or issue fines when commercial space operators are not compliant with requirements. Now that we're all caught up in terminology, let's get to our first interview.

Allen Kenitzer:
I sat down with two of our space experts via Zoom, Wayne Monteith, the associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation and Pam Underwood, the director of the Office of Spaceports. They'll give us the big picture of what the FAA's advancements in space really mean for us.

Allen Kenitzer:
First to you, Wayne. We live in a very exciting time today when it comes to space transportation, but when most people think about space, they still think about the old NASA Apollo days and the Space Shuttle. Can you talk about commercial space and why the FAA's involved and the vital role that the FAA plays in maintaining the airspace?

Wayne Monteith:
Thanks, Allen. Not to take away from NASA whatsoever, our most iconic space agency. When you look at the commercial space sector, a lot more going on than just NASA missions and certainly we have moved leaps and bounds beyond the days of Apollo. Right now, we have tremendous commercial companies that are pushing the envelope on things like reusability, lower cost of space. As a matter of fact, since the days of Shuttle to today, it's an order of magnitude cheaper to get to space. Under the Shuttle days, is about $20,000 a kilogram. Now it's under $2,000 a kilogram. Where we come in is we keep this entire industry safe. You've got folks trying to push real fast, go real hard. Our job is to keep the public safe, either in a launch operation, a re-entry operation or in spaceports.

Allen Kenitzer:
Excellent. What's the purpose of the launch re-entry license and why is this necessary?

Wayne Monteith:
Again, it all comes down to safety. We set that standard that keeps the public safe. I'll tell you, we've licensed over, licensure permitted over 400 operations. We have never had a fatality or serious injury to a member of the uninvolved public, an absolutely enviable record. what I'd liken it to, because nobody wants to be regulated. Let's be honest, but understand why we need traffic signals. If you've got two cars come up to a traffic signal, you expect the one with the red light's going to stop and probably 99.8% of the time, they stop. But sometimes they make a risk calculation. "Well, it's yellow, it's kind of orange. It's almost going to red. Maybe I'll push it just a little bit." Most of the time that you go through that red light or somebody else goes through that red light, nothing bad happens, but occasionally something does. So uur job is to make sure that when a customer or launch provider understands what the regulations are, they don't push that little bit of extra risk when something can go horribly wrong. That's where we come in.

Allen Kenitzer:
You mentioned permits. Could you talk a little bit more about permits versus licenses?

Wayne Monteith:
Yeah. Permits are really designed for experimental version and quite frankly, they're more geared towards things like very small rockets, sounding rockets. When you transition to where you want to do, say go to orbit, or you want to start flying passengers, you have to be licensed because the licensing regime is a little more structured and a lot more safety focused because the expectation is, that you've got more of an operational concept and it now requires more safety oversight in the operation. If you're doing, but keep in mind all while trying to enable the industry to actually move forward and do great things at a speed that they need to move at.

Allen Kenitzer:
Wayne, for the sake of our listeners, could you tell us under what authority the FAA is acting?

Wayne Monteith:
We operate under Title 51 of the United States Code, unlike the rest of the FAA, which functions under Title 49. In Title 51, we're responsible for launch and re-entry, public safety, protection of public property and launching reentry operations, and also protecting the national security of foreign policy interests of the United States for U.S. flight companies. Now, the difference that we have, and it's all based on safety, however, there are two other things in our statute that are unique to us. Number one, we are also tasked with enabling, facilitating and promoting the industry because the industry is still considered nascent. We're directed to only regulate to the extent necessary, which again, enables innovation in this transportation sector.

Allen Kenitzer:
So far we've seen primarily unmanned flights. What about a manned or human space flight? What's the FAA's there?

Wayne Monteith:
Well, Allen, you found the one thing that keeps me up at night and that's commercial human space flight with space flight participants. We don't call them passengers. They're space flight participants. Now, as you may note, last year in November, we licensed our first NASA launch with humans onboard, Dave and Doug. That is an outgrowth of the tremendous partnership that we have with NASA. Going forward, we will be licensing the NASA crew missions because it makes sense. We'll worry about the public safety portion of that and relieve some of that burden from NASA. This year, we'll probably in May-ish timeframe, be flying crew too.

Wayne Monteith:
You'll also note that SpaceX and SpaceX is right now, the one flying these crew members on their dragon two capsule. They've also just announced that by the end of the year, they'll have a free flyer where they'll take up four individuals and they'll just fly an orbit. The crew one crew and two missions are going to the international space station, of course. Then we also have, Blue Origin, this year should be flying people to space and Virgin Galactic will also be doing the exact same thing. The aperture's really opening up for folks, Allen, like you and me to be able to get to space.

Allen Kenitzer:
Exciting times, indeed. Pam, to you. Again, when most people think about launches, they think about the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Could you talk about what a spaceport is and what spaceports look like now and what they might look like, maybe say 10 years in the future?

Pam Underwood:
Absolutely. Thanks, Allen. Honestly, I like to call it a spaceport is where it all begins. That's where your launch occurs. That's where the launch starts. To some degree, where it concludes, if it is a reentry site also. The spaceports play a vital role in our commercial space transportation industry and the support they provide to the industry in providing that much needed infrastructure is key, especially as our industry continues to grow. Allen, you mentioned that many often think of the Kennedy Space Center when they think about launches. While Florida has a rich history in commercial and government space launch, our industry is so much more and that's what's really exciting. As our industry grows and starts to develop and chase other markets, we're seeing a diversification in the launch locations. While there is still a great deal of launches from the state of Florida, domestically, we're seeing launches from many other locations, Alaska, California, Texas, Virginia, and other places that are planned in the future domestically.

Pam Underwood:
I think what's really exciting about what's occurring globally, we have some U.S. companies, one today, already launching routinely from Ahia, New Zealand and other companies that are looking to pursue global interests U.S. companies. We're going to see more U.S. companies launching abroad also. Again, in support of this commercial space transportation market, which is not just a domestic thing. We have to think global. When we think spaceports and infrastructure needed for launch, it's really a global endeavor and something that we and office of commercial space and office of space ports look to partner with our domestic and international spaceports to really further enable and support.

Allen Kenitzer:
Pam, you mentioned international. Could you talk a little bit more about that? The FAA's role in that?

Pam Underwood:
Absolutely. Office of Commercial Space Transportation does a great deal of engagement internationally. We were, the United States, was the very first country to have commercial space launch regulations on the books. Other countries have followed, but what we want to do as much like what they've done with aviation, is create some commonality and some standards that are the same. If our industry really is going to prosper on the global level, we as government, need to make sure and work hard with other countries that are developing space regulations, that there's consistency. That's our real big focus area for us now, is targeting those countries that are working on, or have commercial space regulations so that we can find some commonality. Often they find helpful when we can partner with them, because as Wayne mentioned, the FAA in particular, has extensive experience in commercial space launch safety and regulating that. We appreciate the opportunity to be able to share that experience and really demonstrate global leadership in safety in this area for the benefit of commercial space.

Allen Kenitzer:
Thank you, Pam. Is there anything else you might be able to share with us about launches today?

Pam Underwood:
What I love about launches today is it's not just for the space nerds anymore. It's really becoming very mainstream. Even space enthusiasts that weren't purposely or previously involved in the industry are really excited when news about space launch happens. I think that's really a nice step forward for our industry. As it becomes more commonplace, I think we're going to see, as I mentioned, the diversification of locations, so that will also draw additional interest. I also look forward to the different platforms that are going to develop, because one of the things that's really great of our industry is they're continuously innovating. What we find exciting now, and Wayne and I are in a position where we're already talking about with the companies about what they're planning in the future, and it just gets even more exciting from here. I think that's a great place for us to be at the present time.

Allen Kenitzer:
Okay. Last question. This is for you both, first to Wayne. If the situation were right, the opportunity was there, would you go?

Wayne Monteith:
I would say, I would hope my mom was not standing in line in front of me because she might get pushed out of the way as I tried to get on the next flight going to space.

Pam Underwood:
Absolutely. I'm right there with Wayne. We might be elbowing each other out of line, but I'll tell you, my kids would be right there. Everyone's excited and my family, so absolutely. I think it's not just us, it's again, a very exciting initiative for us as a country and an international community. Yes, absolutely.

Allen Kenitzer:
Well, thank you both. Is there anything else you'd like to add that I haven't asked that you think that people would like to hear about?

Wayne Monteith:
Allen, I would, and thanks for that opportunity. What I would add on with is why this is important and what are we looking at right now compared to where we've come from? I would take you back in the commercial space launch industry, just one decade, so back to 2011. In 2011, the FAA licensed a single commercial space flight, and it didn't even fly from the United States. It flew from the Pacific on a system called Sea Launch. Just one year ago, we launched or licensed more FAA launches the that this week alone. This week alone, more than that. We are already at eight launches and a reentry this year. As Pam mentioned, only four of those came from a federal launch range or Cape Canaveral Kennedy Space Center. The other four came from other spaceports. We're looking at an increase of another 50% this year, from last year, which was 50% more than the previous year.

Wayne Monteith:
We are anticipating this year, to have a commercial licensed launch on average every single week of the year. Just incredible change and when I talked earlier about the lowering cost of getting to orbit, what that amounts to is, if you look at SpaceX and they're star link constellation, in just over a year, that they'd been launching those new communications satellites, they put a thousand of them, more than a thousand on orbit, which represents over half of the active satellites in low Earth orbit. By the end of the decade, SpaceX will have launched more satellites than the rest of the world combined since Sputnik. This is a cool time to be in this business. This is going on. We're going back to the moon or going forward to the moon, as NASA administrator, Jim Bridenstine used to say, we're looking at maybe going to Mars. As a young man, if he can't drive a truck for a living, being in the rocket launch business is the next best thing.

Pam Underwood:
I'll second what Wayne saying, about this is the time and the excitement for the industry. With everything that Wayne mentioned that we're seeing as the numbers of launches are increasing exponentially over the years, we and the regulators, we have to look ahead. We have to be prepared. We can't just be reactionary to what we have now. We have to look ahead. Whether it's, as Wayne in his leadership has been driving us to work better and improve our processes and our regulatory approaches. We also in offices spaceports need to look at what is the infrastructure needed. We have infrastructure available today. What are these new diversifying, innovative launch people's going to need in the future? We always got to be looking ahead so that we can continue to enable, because the pace at which this industry is growing and changing just as Wayne said, is really, really exciting as we, the FAA, want to be ready to be able to handle it and support it.

Dominique Gebru:
We heard Wayne Monteith speak a lot about the licensing of launches and the importance of that process. How does that all come together really? Let's take an in-depth look at space launches and re-entry procedures with our reporter, Chris Troxell, as he speaks with Duane Freer, the manager for space operations here at the FAA.

Duane Freer:
In the FAA, when a rocket launches, we have to build a hazard area or a box around that vehicle to protect both the public on the ground and the public in the air. What we do is we work with the airline operators and the launch operators to move traffic, to clear the airspace around the vehicle so that it can get to space safely, and the aircraft in the area can be moved efficiently around. Then once the operation is over, they can move back into that airspace. That's what we do. It's called NASA integration. It seems like it's very complicated, but on the surface, it's very easy. If you imagine a highway and you have construction on a highway, it's how to effectively move the traffic that would be normally on that highway, around that construction, and then back on as efficiently as possible.

Chris Troxell:
Can you tell us a little bit about the tools and procedures that you have for managing the airspace during these spaces?

Duane Freer:
Yeah. We're using some new tools and some new procedures. We've got time-based launch procedures and we've got dynamic launch and re-entry windows. Both of those are new procedures that we're implementing now. We're trying to take a time-based solution to managing the traffic and gaining efficiency. Time-based launch procedures is really just using existing tools and processes in a different way in the launch business. That's really exciting, but then we've got dynamic launch windows where we're working with the operators on triggers within their missions that we can use, or we can exploit to even be more efficient. The one that's really exciting that we've been doing is the liquid oxygen load for SpaceX. They'll fuel their Falcon Nine with liquid oxygen about 40 minutes prior to launch.

Duane Freer:
Once we get that locks load, they're committed to a T-zero and we can start moving traffic based on that trigger. we're doing it in other places, Blue Origin in West Texas. We're using it with the Starship in Boca Chica, and it's a really exciting collaborative effort that we've worked out with the launch and reentry operators, that it's going to really increase the efficiency and really make us more dynamic moving into the future.

Chris Troxell:
Interesting. I hadn't heard about that. I know a little bit about the space data integrator. Would you like to talk about that? What's the latest on the SDI?

Duane Freer:
Yeah. Absolutely, because SDI is coming online. We're going to operationalize that. Around the end of March, beginning of April, that's been along the way to capability that we've been working on. The PMO office and the FAA is working with the launch and reentry operators to get their telemetry data in. We've got agreements with SpaceX, Blue Origin, and we're working on Virgin Orbit, Virgin Galactic, Sierra, Nevada. I believe we're working with Firefly also and Rocket Lab. A lot of the newer companies are coming on board and going to supply us telemetry data. What that does in layman's terms is it just gives us visibility over the operation. We get the telemetry data from the operator, and we're able to put it on a display here in the Challenger room where we can actually visualize the position, the altitude, the speed, all the necessary components of that launch vehicle.

Duane Freer:
We you can also monitor the health status of the vehicle, whether it's performing as planned. That's a really exciting thing because you can now see that vehicle and make air traffic decisions based on where that vehicle is and how it's performing, which is a game changer in the air traffic world. Air traffic control revolves around situational awareness. That's what that capability is going to get us.

Chris Troxell:
I've heard that you're facing the highest number of space operations ever this year, 2021. Is that changing the way that you work are you having to adapt to that?

Duane Freer:
Only the last quarter of 2020 was the busiest quarter of any moment in history. We had more launches and reentries in that three month period than ever. We're looking, that trend is going to continue through 2021. I know AST is predicting 50 plus operations. Last year, we manage commercially licensed and non-commercial, we had 45 operations. We're looking somewhere between 60 and 70 kind of conservatively for operations this year. That's pushing the envelope, but that's why we're doing these time-based procedures and these dynamic, because those are the tools that we're going to need to manage more operations in to integrate more operations into the NASC. That's what's going to pave the way for that increased volume, great process for us. We finally put us astronauts up from U.S. soil on a U.S. vehicle last May. That was really exciting because we're back in the game now again, and that's a game changer for the country. The space tourism industry is going to take off this year.

Duane Freer:
That's going to be a big driver. You've got Blue Origin in West, Texas, Virgin Galactic out of Spaceport America. They're selling tickets on vehicles to go up to the edge of space. That to me, is going to be a volume increaser. People are going to want to go see space. They're going to want to have that moment. Those are two really exciting things. Then you've got SpaceX down in Boca Chica. Elon Musk wants to make interplanetary life and that's his lab form for it right there. That's their platform for it. They've got the Starship and that's going to go to the moon and Mars with people on board, paying passengers, astronauts. We're really seeing that future that everybody's dreamed about really coming to life now. Human space flight, if you're an average citizen out there, once the price comes down a little bit. Right now, it's a little bit expensive, but once it comes down a little bit, the average person's going to have that ability to experience space flight. Boy, that's a game changer just for humanity in general.

Chris Troxell:
Do you have any final thoughts? Anything that you'd like to emphasize to listeners?

Duane Freer:
We're in the second space race. This is a really exciting time. If you're interested in space, now is the time. It's like you said, Chris, it's constantly changing. Every day we walk in, it's a new challenge, but that's what makes it fun. That's what makes it exciting. It's just a really exciting time to be involved in space. If any of the listeners are interested in going to space, being involved in space, there's so many opportunities with NASA, with the FAA, with launch providers, the industry is really blossoming and blooming in a really rapid pace right now. The opportunities, whether you're into data analysis or you're into rocketry or propulsion or whatever you're into, there's a place for you in space. I think that's a really exciting thing for our youth and for the United States. It's an exciting time. If you're interested, get involved. Don't hesitate.

Allen Kenitzer:
Duane Freer explained in his interview just why it's so important to manage the airspace during a launch. What happens on the ground? We'll hear again from our reporter, Chris Troxell, as he interviews Collin Anderson and Justin Martin, two FAA safety inspectors.

Dominique Gebru:
Justin and Collin are going to fill us in on what their work as aerospace safety inspectors actually looks like in an industry that's changing fast, and how they make sure spacecraft are ready for launch.

Chris Troxell:
Justin, start off by giving us a broad description of your job? What's your objective and mission as a safety inspector?

Justin Martin:
For the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which if you hear us say AST, that's just our line of business. We have two primary goals. One is to ensure the safety of the public during commercial space operations, and two, to encourage, facilitate and promote the commercial space industry. As safety inspectors, we verify compliance of our licensees with the FAA's regulations regarding commercial space operations, as well as what the license authorization that we issued to them.

Chris Troxell:
Can you tell me a little bit about what your job entails? What specific projects are you working on

Justin Martin:
Outside of inspection, we are both assigned to different licensing teams and we provide operation level experience and expertise to the licensing teams. We help inform them of any inconsistencies with the regulations or any of the application materials submitted by the operators because we were on the ground. We actually go out to the sites and we see what they're doing and we call into the meetings. We get to provide that expertise back to them. I'm also the team lead for our compliance and enforcement program. We track and manage all the non-compliances observed by our safety inspectors. Then we can generate metrics, look at trends and try to address them directly with the operators.

Chris Troxell:
Excellent. Collin, can you tell me a little bit about what you do, what assignments and projects you're on?

Collin Anderson:
I've only been here for about a year and a half. This is my first job right out of college. They pretty much having to hit the ground running as soon as I got here. I've been pretty much thrown on inspection operations almost immediately when I started and went through the proper trainings.

Chris Troxell:
With human space flight around the corner, do you see this changing your line of work? If so, how?

Justin Martin:
Yeah. It definitely will. We've already had an uptick in the amount of work we did for crew one. Crew one was licensed by us. As Collin mentioned to the inflight board, that was also licensed by us. We're working very collaboratively and closely with NASA to make sure that not only the astronauts stay safe, but that we continue to keep the public safe at the same time. This partnership that we have will allow us to boom the industry even more and really capitalize on the commercial aspects of the space industry and allow it to grow. It does require a lot of scrutiny because where astronauts safety and public safety may not line up, we then have to work towards a common goal there.

Collin Anderson:
Another aspect that we keep looking at is not only NASA crew or commercial crew program, it's also the rise of commercial human space flight. You've got companies like Virgin Galactic, Blue Origin, their new Shepard system. You have all of these different companies that want to get into the space tourism industry. These ultimately fall under our office to ensure that everything goes smoothly and we take a great responsible … I take a great responsibility to that as well as everyone in our office. I kind of think of this, like we're in the 1910s of the space age, the Wright Brothers first flight was in 1903. Then what, 20, 30 years after that, we started having commercial air travel. I like to think that we're kind of in that same zone, where it's going to happen and we have to be ready for it.

Chris Troxell:
That's a really cool analogy. What is the most exciting part about your job, would you say?

Justin Martin:
As the industry begins to boom and the technology gets pushed to its boundaries and we start discovering new technology and new ways of doing things, we then get to turn around and look at our own processes and change things up and disruptive innovation is a good way to say it. Watching the industry grow, getting to be a part of it. Then from the regulatory side, seeing how we adapt and change to it. That's one of the most exciting parts for me and getting to be a part of that process, both watching the industry grow and being a part of it, helping the government to facilitate that process.

Collin Anderson:
One of the things I kind of wanted to help do, since I really want to become an aerospace engineer, which was about eighth grade, was I wanted help continue this United States presence in space with people in orbit and after Shuttle ended, the only way we could get to the national space station was through the Russians.

Collin Anderson:
I have kind of this drive that pushed me through high school and college that I said, "I want to help bring the U.S. astronauts back to space from U.S. soil in any way I can." With working in flight of port, part of why that mission is so big to me is that that was the last mission before that big step. I don't know a lot of people who can say that they've accomplished one of their biggest professional goals when they turn 23. It's mind blowing in one of my things now, is I want to help people get to Mars. I don't know how it's going to be. That's the big talk right now is getting to Mars. All I know is that I would like to help. I know Justin has helped already because Justin's worked some of the Starship program down in Boca Chica, Texas. He's already got to check that box off his list.

Justin Martin:
That's how I met Elon [Musk], actually, was through that.

Chris Troxell:
Before we close, is there anything else that you would like to add, that you would like listeners to know about you or about what you do?

Justin Martin:
Well, the industry is booming. I know we've said that a couple of times at this point, but it is growing at an exponential rate. As we mentioned, operators are pushing the boundaries of what's currently possible and not only challenging themselves, but challenging us. We're working on streamlining our regulations and our processes because we want to continue to facilitate the industry. We want to see it grow. We want to see it be successful, but we want it to succeed safely. That's what we're there for, and that's what our focus is. Their success is our success, and we're very happy to be here and to be a part of this huge change.

Justin Martin:
The analogy that Collin said, going from airplane commercial travel to commercial space travel, we're excited to be here.

Collin Anderson:
Yeah. I think there's this big misconception that the government wants to hinder progress in industry and being full of people who are dead set on space. All of us really love this job. We really want to see companies succeed. I think that there's a big misconception amongst the industry that says that the FAA wants to really hinder that. We really don't. We really want to see these companies grow, but again, as Justin said, we just want to see them do it in a safe manner.

Dominique Gebru:
The FAA is doing a lot of big things when it comes to space and we're all excited and hopeful for the future. Maybe one day, we'll all be able to take trips to space.

Allen Kenitzer:
Say when and where. How about you Dominique? given the opportunity, would you go?

Dominique Gebru:
Well, Allen. I'm going to be totally honest. I am a little bit afraid of heights, but I think if the opportunity arose for me to travel the space, I wouldn't be able to forgive myself if I didn't take that opportunity. I'm going to say yes.

Allen Kenitzer:
The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media too. We're at FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and @FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks for listening.