By Wayne Monteith, Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation
Imagine you’re planning the trip of the lifetime. Destination: space. That dream — an ordinary person traveling to space — is rapidly becoming a reality. Starting this year, the first paying space flight participants could ride a rocket into the zero gravity of space.
However, the countdown doesn’t begin until the FAA authorizes the launch. To help get that countdown started, the FAA just streamlined its commercial space launch and reentry licensing rule that will cut some of the paperwork and facilitate the growth of commercial space transportation — including that trip of a lifetime you might be planning!
You may be asking, what does the FAA have to do with space? Before a launch or reentry vehicle can get into or return from space, it must pass through airspace that’s shared with conventional aircraft and other users. The FAA is responsible for that airspace. Additionally, our safety engineers make sure the public on the ground is protected during FAA-licensed launch or reentry activities.
The old licensing regulations were out of date and out of step with commercial space’s light speed momentum. The number of FAA-licensed launches took off from only one in 2011, to a record 39 in 2020. That’s a 3800% increase in just ten years!
Those numbers are expected to keep skyrocketing. We are forecasting more than 50 FAA-licensed launches and reentries in 2021 — on average that’s nearly one every week. Some estimate 100 or more per year in the not-too-distant future once space tourism really takes off.
The FAA licenses not only commercial launch and reentry activities, but also spaceports (like airports, but for spacecraft). In the U.S., launch facilities are comprised of 12 FAA-licensed spaceports, along with additional federal government and private launch sites.
The new rule establishes a single set of licensing and safety regulations for several types of commercial space operations and vehicles. For example, one license could support multiple launches and reentries at multiple locations — that’s a real game-changing innovation.
The FAA’s role is to encourage, facilitate and promote U.S. commercial space transportation while keeping this entire industry and the public safe. There are some incredible commercial space companies moving fast, pushing the envelope and launching as often as they can. They’ve dramatically brought down the cost of launches and introduced truly amazing new technology.
Our job is to make sure that a launch provider or a spaceport operator understands and follows what the regulations are so they don’t take unnecessary risk that could lead to something going horribly wrong for the public.
The FAA protects public safety by making sure regulations are followed in all phases of licensed operations. It also issues safety approvals for launch and reentry vehicles, various safety systems and the people who perform licensed activities.
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said it well when talking about the new licensing rule. While we are all about helping the commercial space industry achieve new apogees, the FAA is — first and foremost — focused on public safety.
Since 1989, the FAA has licensed or permitted over 450 commercial space operations and have never had a fatality or serious injury to a member of the uninvolved public. That is an absolutely enviable record and one we intend to keep.
So, when you read or see in the news that yet another commercial space launch took off, or when you buy your first ticket to space, remember that the FAA is an integral part of making it all happen and keeping it safe.
Do you want to get involved in the space industry? The FAA is hiring aerospace engineers to support our safety responsibilities for launches and reentries. Learn more about exciting career opportunities in FAA commercial space.
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