The U.S. airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world, and FAA's core mission is safety. When a commercial space vehicle is scheduled to fly, FAA uses regulatory and operational means to segregate launch and reentry operations from other flights in the National Airspace System (NAS) to ensure safety. Relatively large volumes of airspace are closed for extended periods of time, causing other users to incur delays and other inefficiencies. As the frequency and complexity of commercial space activities continue to increase, the existing approach will become increasingly unsustainable.
The FAA and the Commercial Space Transportation (CST) industry are working together to minimize disruption by moving from accommodation to integration. We are working on new procedures and technologies to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed in advance of the operation, quickly respond to contingencies and release airspace so that it can be used by other flights as soon as it is no longer needed. In the future, airspace will be managed dynamically, safely minimizing inefficiencies and paving the way for routine access to low Earth orbit and beyond through the NAS.
Operations in the NAS
As part of the licensing and permitting process, a commercial launch or reentry vehicle operator or site operator must enter into a letter of agreement with FAA air traffic control to define procedures for notification, communication, and contingencies. Once an operator receives a license or permit, they continue to work with FAA as the day of operation approaches, providing operation-specific information according to the timelines in the agreement. As part of its preparation for the operation, FAA assesses the effect of the operation on the system. This includes identifying a potential hazard area and determining which regularly scheduled flights need to be rerouted, negotiates with the operator as needed based on the assessment and relevant constraints upon the NAS, develops an airspace management plan and distributes the plan to affected facilities and other stakeholders.
During the operation, the FAA and operator execute their plans, communicating readiness and mission status over hotlines and other means as specified in their agreement. The FAA implements the necessary airspace restrictions, based on pre-operation safety computations, and monitors the mission's progress. In the case of a vehicle malfunction, FAA works quickly to identify the affected airspace and take actions necessary to ensure safety. As the operation unfolds toward its completion, airspace restrictions are lifted as quickly as possible.
Until now, much of this activity was executed manually, using non-integrated systems and operation-specific procedures. The FAA and the CST industry have been working collaboratively to develop time-based procedures and operator mission triggers to more effectively manage airspace and mitigate launch and re-entry effects on the NAS. Procedural changes will serve as a bridge in integration efforts as FAA pursues advanced automation that will be required as the industry continues to grow. The Space Data Integrator (SDI) is the first of several new capabilities that will more efficiently integrate commercial space operations into the NAS. The FAA plans to deploy an initial SDI capability in 2020 that will offer immediate improvements, including increased situational awareness and more timely airspace management decisions. Other technologies will follow, also developed in collaboration with the CST industry, to automate mission planning, to standardize and streamline data exchange, to more quickly identify the affected airspace in the case of an off-nominal event, and to provide air traffic controllers, pilots, and other stakeholders with the information they need to operate safely and at optimal efficiency.
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 Federal Aviation Administration'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.