We often view space, and space transportation, as a descendant of aviation, but in reality both are a story of parallel evolution. In the same year (1899) that the Wright Brothers began to test wing warping, Robert Goddard set his goal of space flight. While the Wrights would meet success only a few years later, Goddard would have to wait a couple of decades to make his first successful flight in 1926. The Wrights saw their accomplishment move to large scale operational use, and more importantly, rapid development, during World War I. Goddard’s work, on the other hand, would have to wait until World War II to be developed, and then ironically not in his own country.
The Germans and Soviets put rockets into wide-scale operational use as ersatz artillery. From there, other applications of rockets included air to air/ground rockets and anti-tank weapons. But the Germans would embrace Goddard’s liquid fueled rocket concept most directly, producing both the world’s first long-range ballistic missile, the (A-4/V-2), and the only operational rocket plane (Me-163). The Second World War showed without a doubt that rocketry could be employed at scale and that the technology to fulfill Goddard’s dream was close at hand.
The Technology Cycle of the Final Frontier
Despite Goddard’s pioneering work on rocketry, the United States entered and even exited World War II as a laggard in the technology. The Germans proved that major government support and resources would be required to make the kind of advancements that Goddard dreamed of and the United States would later achieve. Almost all of Goddard’s support came from private donations and sponsorships. The rest of the Space Race history is well told elsewhere. Today, spacecraft are turning back to private ownership and operation. While still very sophisticated and expensive, the technology is now at the point where private companies are taking up the role of space transportation.
But What Does That Have To Do With The FAA?
“Nobody wants to be regulated,” explains Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, on a recent episode of “The Air Up There” podcast (faa.gov/podcasts). “But understand why we need traffic signals … you expect that a car with a red light will stop and probably 99.8% of the time they do stop. But sometimes they make a risk calculation, it’s yellow, maybe orange, and push it just a bit,” he continued. “Most of the time when they go through that light nothing bad happens, but occasionally something does. So our job is to make sure that the operator understands what the regulations are and that they don’t push that extra bit of risk when something can go terribly wrong.”
Directing Traffic to Space
The first challenge to commercial space operations is one of airspace. Any expansion beyond traditional government space launches and launch sites would require new procedures. Especially after 9/11, space launches could massively impact aviation operations. The post 9/11 shuttle launch restrictions basically shut down my home airport in Melbourne, Fla. for days at a time. So increasing the tempo of launches, and the number of launch sites, means that ad hoc methods used in the past to separate air and space traffic were no longer going to be an effective solution. Today, the FAA has licensed domestic launch sites in Florida, Alaska, California, Texas, New Mexico, Colorado, Oklahoma, and Virginia with many more planned in the future.
In “The Air Up There” podcast, Duane Freer, the FAA’s manager for space operations, explains how it works. “At the FAA, when a rocket launches, we have to build a hazard area around it to protect both the public on the ground and the public in the air. We work with the air operators and the launch operators to move traffic and aircraft and to clear airspace around the rocket so it can get to space safely. This is called NAS (National Airspace System) integration. The goal is to move the traffic out of and back into the area as efficiently as possible around the space operation.”
To do that successfully requires both collaboration and innovation. “We’ve got new processes, such as time-based launch procedures and dynamic launch and reentry windows,” says Freer. “We’re trying to take a time-based solution to managing the traffic and gaining efficiency. Dynamic launch windows allow us to take advantage of triggers within the launch operator’s missions that we can use to be even more efficient.”
One process in particular that has caught Freer’s excitement is the Space X operations procedure that uses a liquid oxygen load. “They fuel their Falcon 9 rocket about 40 minutes prior to launch, and once we get that liquid oxygen load, they are committed to a T0 [launch] and we can start moving traffic based on that trigger,” he explains. “We’re doing that in other places, and it’s a really exciting collaborative effort that we’ve worked out with the launch operators.” It minimizes the time that airspace is restricted and other NAS operations are impacted. This improves on the previous process which relied on blocking airspace for the entire launch window until the spacecraft launch was completed or the mission was officially scrubbed.
Another system Freer highlighted was the Space Data Integrator (SDI), which allows launch operators to share telemetry data from the spacecraft with the FAA directly to monitor the status of their mission. The goal is to have the SDI operational by the time you read these words (in Spring 2021). The SDI will allow even more tailoring of operations around space launches in real time with access to high quality data. The FAA currently has deals with several launch operators and is looking to add more as the SDI comes online.
A Ticket to Space
Last year saw the first-ever NASA-crewed mission to be licensed by the FAA with more to come in the future.
While airspace is an obvious area of concern for the FAA, the agency must also handle the licensing of launch and reentry operations and spaceports. It might initially seem that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) would be the agency charged with such responsibility, but NASA is primarily a research and development agency, not a regulatory one. So while they have great expertise in spacecraft operations, they are not charged with regulating new entrants to the NAS. As commercial space operations expand, safe integration into the NAS is key. That’s where the FAA’s experience really shines. The FAA has decades of experience certificating airports, air carriers, and air operators that can be translated into this area in collaboration with NASA. The agency also has authority to issue safety approvals under the Commercial Space Launch Act for many aspects of commercial space activities. For more details on how this works you can check out “Spaceports Launch the Next Frontier in Flight” from our May/June 2016 issue (PDF download of issue). It also mirrors the FAA’s surveillance operations including Safety Inspectors who ensure that launches are being conducted in accordance with regulations. One key difference is that under Title 51 of the United States Code, the FAA is also tasked with enabling the nascent industry while still protecting the public.
The goal is to provide a clear framework for all operators to use. It should provide room for new entrants while easing the path for existing operators to expand their operations. The FAA’s job is to provide a safety standard to protect the public. To that end, last year saw the first-ever NASA-crewed mission to be licensed by the FAA with more to come in the future. This approach allows the FAA to focus on public safety while NASA focuses on the mission. It is also a stepping stone to future commercial space operations with space flight participants.
With several space flight operators seeking to put civilian participants in space this year, the time for Goddard’s dream to become reality for the general public is coming. The FAA’s mission is to make sure that it can be done safely. Fusing these two disparate users into one safe NAS is the key to growing commercial space operations to the point where one day space travel might be available to almost anyone. With a set of straightforward rules and regulations, combined with the competition of innovative minds, we are taking important steps in that direction.
James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.