The U.S. airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world, and the FAA's core mission is safety. When a commercial space vehicle is scheduled to fly, the 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 the 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, the 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, the 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 the FAA pursues advanced automation that will be required as the industry continues to grow. The Space Data Integrator (