Airspace Integration

The FAA is responsible for the safe and efficient integration of space operations into the U.S. airspace system, the busiest and most complex in the world. This includes space operations for FAA-licensed commercial space operators and for NASA, the U.S. military and other U.S. government agencies.

Prior to 2014, space operations were relatively infrequent and the FAA accommodated them on an as needed basis by closing relatively large volumes of airspace for extended periods of time. Today, as the pace of space launches and reentries is increasing, the FAA is directly involved in the airspace planning process and is using technology and operating procedures to:

  • keep airspace open longer before closure;
  • reduce how much airspace is closed and for how long;
  • reopen airspace sooner after it is no longer needed;
  • reroute only the aircraft directly affected by the operation;
  • track space vehicles in near-real time during flight; and
  • respond quickly to missions experiencing an anomaly.

These actions allow the FAA to manage the National Airspace System (NAS) more dynamically, minimizing inefficiencies and clearing the way for safe, routine access to low Earth orbit and beyond.

Since 2018, the FAA has cut airspace closures from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours – and in some cases even less. In addition, airspace is routinely reopened as quickly as three minutes after a space vehicle safely travels through a designated aircraft hazard area.

The FAA also is exploring additional technological and procedural measures to further improve space integration and has established the Space Collaborative Decision Making program with space launch and reentry operators, government agencies, the airline industry, and other space stakeholders. Areas of focus include pre-mission data sharing, situational awareness during space operations and reducing impacts to other airspace users.

Developing an Airspace Management Plan

The FAA develops an Airspace Management Plan for each space operation that details how it will safely and efficiently manage the airspace.

As part of the FAA commercial space licensing and permitting process, a launch or reentry vehicle operator, or spaceport operator, must enter into a Letter of Agreement with FAA air traffic control to define general procedures for notification, communication and contingency plans for its space operations. After the FAA issues a license or permit, the space operator provides timely and operation-specific information as the mission date approaches.

The FAA Office of Space Operations assesses how the space launch or reentry impacts the airspace, seeks input from the airline industry, establishes potential aircraft hazard areas and negotiates with the space operator to identify additional efficiencies.

A final Airspace Management Plan is distributed to the affected FAA air traffic control facilities and other stakeholders. Notice to Air Missions bulletins also are issued for all U.S. airspace users (and to international partners as appropriate) for awareness of the upcoming space operation.

Managing Space Operations in Progress

While a space operation is in progress, the FAA uses technology and procedural measures to manage when to close and reopen the airspace and which aircraft to reroute. In the event of a space vehicle malfunction or mishap, FAA can quickly identify the affected airspace and take actions necessary to ensure the safety of aircraft from falling debris.

  • Critical Decision Window:  If there is a likelihood a space launch or reentry may be scrubbed and rescheduled, the FAA encourages the space operator to make the decision early and before any air traffic management initiative is implemented.
  • Dynamic Windows: The FAA uses key mission “triggers” such as the loading of rocket fuel and the final disposition of the booster rocket to pinpoint when to close and reopen airspace.
  • Space Data Integrator (SDI):  This tool allows the FAA to track a space vehicle in near real-time by receiving telemetry data such as position, altitude, speed and any deviation from its expected flight path. It provides the FAA situational awareness, and in combination with other information, helps to reopen airspace quicker after the vehicle safely clears a designated aircraft hazard area.
  • Time-Based Procedures:  The FAA identifies and reroutes only the aircraft directly affected by the closed airspace allowing more aircraft to stay on their most optimal and efficient routes. The FAA also uses these procedures to make strategic air traffic management decisions affecting areas with high volumes of air traffic.
  • Debris Response Areas: This is activated only if the space vehicle experiences an anomaly with debris falling outside of the identified closed aircraft hazard areas. It allows the FAA to direct aircraft to exit the area and prevent others from entering.

Concept of Operations

The Commercial Space Integration into the NAS (CSINAS) Concept of Operations (PDF) describes future commercial space operations, with an emphasis on managing integration of launch and reentry vehicles as they transition through the National Airspace System. The ConOps reflects the collaborative efforts across the FAA’s Lines of Business and Service Centers, led by the Office of NextGen with the Office of Commercial Space Transportation, Air Traffic Organization and Office of Airports that developed three key themes: Delivering Improved Services, Launch and Reentry Vehicle Integration, and Meeting New Challenges.

Airspace Integration and Traffic Management for Commercial Space Operations

Last updated: Tuesday, May 2, 2023