Compliance, Enforcement & Mishap

How does FAA enforce and monitor Commercial Space Transportation?

Our safety inspectors monitor pre-operational, operational and post operational phases of FAA regulated Commercial Space Transportation activities which can impact public safety and the safety of property.

The Division Manager administers the safety inspection process while the Enforcement Program Manager ensures proper development and maintenance of the Enforcement Program including adherence with all applicable FAA Orders and Commercial Space Transportation's internal procedures.

Pre-operational activities include:

  • Qualification, installation and testing of flight safety system components
  • Mission readiness reviews
  • Safety compliance and support reviews
  • Safety working groups, and planning discussions
  • Operational rehearsals, simulations, and exercises.

Operational activities include:

  • Monitoring countdown procedures
  • Operator communication processes
  • Procedural execution
  • Vehicle processing and preparation
  • Safety critical operator/launch site personnel interaction
  • Identifying non-nominal or public safety issues.

Post operational activities include:

  • Monitoring of post operational reviews
  • Post flight/reentry evaluations
  • Lessons learned discussions
  • Documenting observed compliance and non-compliance
  • Communicating and coordinating with operators to correct noncompliance issues

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation monitors licenses compliance with the Commercial Space Launch Act, the Commercial Space Transportation Licensing Regulations, and the terms and conditions set forth in its license. A licensee shall allow access by, and cooperate with, federal officers or employees or other individuals authorized by FAA to observe any activities of the licensee, or of the licensee's contractors or subcontractors, associated with the conduct of a licensed activity. We verify that you are operating in accordance with the representations contained in your application.

We must also ensure that no one is engaged in commercial space transportation operations illegally, that is, without a license.

For specific rules and regulations, see 49 U.S.C. Section 70104(a) (PDF) and 14 CFR Section 413.3. For small-scaled (amateur) rocket activities that are exempt from licensing, see 14 CFR Section 401.5.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation's enforcement mechanisms include:

Compliance & Enforcement Workshop Slides

Compliance and Enforcement Program for Commercial Space Transportation Workshop Video
Submit a Question to the Safety Assurance Division 

Mishap Response Program

What is FAA's safety oversight role for Commercial Space Transportation?

The FAA is responsible for protecting the public during commercial space transportation launch and reentry operations. Public safety is at the core of the FAA licensing or permitting process; of the safety inspections conducted before, during and after a launch or reentry; and of the investigation and corrective actions following a mishap event.

What constitutes a mishap?

What constitutes a mishap varies somewhat based on whether a valid FAA launch or reentry license was issued under the new regulations (14 CFR Part 450) or the prior regulations (14 CFR Part 415, 431, or 435). All FAA issued commercial space licenses will be subject to the same definition of a mishap no later than March 2026.

See Streamlined Launch and Reentry License Requirements Final Rule (PDF) for additional information about mishaps (beginning on page 113 of the PDF).

For licenses issued under 14 CFR Part 450:

The new FAA regulations describe nine events (see below) that would constitute a mishap (14 CFR 401.7). The occurrence of any of these events, singly or in any combination, during the scope of FAA-authorized commercial space activities constitutes a mishap and must be reported to the FAA (14 CFR 450.173(c)).

  • Serious injury or fatality
  • Malfunction of a safety-critical system
  • Failure of a safety organization, safety operations or safety procedures
  • High risk of causing a serious or fatal injury to any space flight participant, crew, government astronaut, or member of the public
  • Substantial damage to property not associated with the activity
  • Unplanned substantial damage to property associated with the activity
  • Unplanned permanent loss of the vehicle
  • Impact of hazardous debris outside of defined areas
  • Failure to complete a launch or reentry as planned

For licenses issued under 14 CFR Part 415, 431, or 435:

For licenses issued prior to the new licensing regulations, the mishap related definitions in 14 CFR 401.5 apply, including:

  • Human space flight incident
  • Launch or reentry accident
  • Launch or reentry incident
  • Mishap

What happens if a mishap occurs?

The FAA requires all licensed commercial space transportation operators to have an FAA-approved mishap plan containing processes and procedures for reporting, responding to, and investigating mishaps (14 CFR 450.173).

Following a mishap, a FAA-licensed operator is responsible for:

  • implementing its mishap plan;
  • activating emergency response services as necessary to protect public safety and property;
  • containing and minimizing the consequences of a mishap;
  • preserving data and physical evidence for later investigation;
  • reporting the mishap to the FAA's Washington Operations Center; and
  • filing a preliminary written report to the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation within five (5) days of the event.

What are key elements of a mishap investigation?

A mishap investigation is designed to further enhance public safety. It will determine the root cause of the event and identify corrective actions the operator must implement to avoid a recurrence of the event.

Based on the nature and consequences of the mishap, the FAA may elect to conduct an investigation into the event, or authorize the operator to perform the investigation in accordance with its approved mishap plan.

During an investigation conducted by the operator, the FAA will provide oversight to ensure the operator complies with its mishap investigation plan and other regulatory requirements. In addition, the FAA will coordinate response planning with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) and with Federal launch ranges operated by the U.S. Space Force, as needed.

Depending on circumstances, some mishap investigations might conclude in a matter of weeks. Other more complex investigations might take several months.

When does the vehicle-type involved in the mishap return to flight?

A return to flight operations of the vehicle-type involved in the mishap is ultimately based on public safety. The FAA must determine that any system, process, or procedure related to the mishap does not affect public safety or any other aspect of the operator’s license. This determination can be made in one of two ways.

  • FAA acceptance of final mishap investigation report: The operator-led mishap investigation final report must be completed, including the identification of any corrective actions. The FAA will review the report, and if accepted, the mishap investigation is closed. The corrective actions then must be implemented, and all relevant licensing requirements met before a return to flight operations. 
  • FAA public safety determination: The operator may request the FAA make a public safety determination based on information that the mishap did not involve safety-critical systems or otherwise jeopardize public safety. The FAA will review the request, and if in agreement, authorize a return to flight operations while the mishap investigation remains open and provided the operator meets all relevant licensing requirements.
Last updated: Monday, April 22, 2024