Space Race 2.0

Why the FAA is Aiming for the Stars

FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff
10 min readMay 3, 2023


By James Williams, FAA Safety Briefing Magazine

Photo of rocket launch.
(Photo courtesy of SpaceX)

We think of rockets as a descendant of aircraft, but in reality, rockets have existed in functional roles since the late eighteenth century. Look no further than the “Star Spangled Banner” and the rocket’s red glare. Fast forward to today and rockets are now an integral part of a thriving commercial space industry. It has been a long and winding road, but the FAA and many other partners, both in government and the private sector, have worked diligently to enable a glorious liftoff.

Magazine cover.

A Brief History

Rockets stayed in the domain of battlefield artillery for all practical purposes until the 1920s. While aircraft came of age during World War I, it wasn’t until the World War II that rockets would begin to play a more significant role. Rockets were bolted to trucks, half-tracks, and tanks on all sides to provide mobile artillery. They would be widely issued to infantry as anti-tank weapons. They would be added to airplanes to increase firepower from traditional armaments. They would even go on to power a few aircraft and provide takeoff assistance to others.

The space race would officially be kicked off in Germany on June 20, 1944. That was when an A-4 rocket (popularly known as the V-2) would be launched vertically to a height of more than 100 miles, becoming the first manmade object in space. The war in Europe would be over within a year, and that technology, among others, along with many scientists working on it, would be transferred to the United States. In a twist of irony, it would be the German program and not the work of Robert Goddard (the pioneering American rocket engineer) that would, a little more than 25 years after the A-4’s trip to space, form the basis of landing men on the moon.

Rockets were extremely expensive and dangerous (both intentionally and unintentionally). This meant governments had a critical role in both funding and managing the technology. With the successful completion of the Apollo program in 1972 and the retirement of the Saturn V rocket in 1973, change was coming to the space arena. The follow-up Space Shuttle program would focus on making access to space more affordable and perhaps even practical as a business. As the Space Transportation System (the formal name of the Space Shuttle program and why missions would be labeled STS-XX) ramped up in the mid-1980s, the regulatory environment began to shift. At first, with an executive order followed rapidly by legislation, 1984 would be the year when commercial space was born. The Department of Transportation was initially designated as the federal agency in charge of enabling commercial space operations. This would be shifted to the FAA and eventually come to rest in the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). But why the FAA?

Photo of the lift off of a Saturn V rocket on Apollo 11 (left). The Space Shuttle Discovery prepares for launch (right). (NASA Photos)

A Guide to the Stars

At first, the FAA might seem like an odd fit. While we think of the space arena as one unit, there are actually three sectors: civil (NASA), military (DOD), and commercial (FAA). NASA and the Department of Defense (DOD)/Space Force (SF) run their own operations and coordinate with the FAA only to secure airspace around their space launches and recoveries. This situation is very similar to how our classic aviation system works. The FAA does not technically regulate government aircraft and operations (whether military or civil).

Government aircraft operators may often be under orders to comply with FAA regulations or procedures. In fact, the FAA’s own fleet of aircraft operates under Part 135 by the agency’s decision.

The same situation holds for space operations. The DOD may contract with air carriers to provide transportation and stipulate that the carrier must operate under FAA regulations. DOD, or NASA, may also employ commercial space operators to conduct missions for them where they may require FAA regulations to be employed. In general, though, DOD and NASA operate and oversee their own space operations.

Another key difference is that the FAA is a regulatory agency, while NASA is a research agency. NASA grew out of the National Advisory Committee on Aeronautics (NACA), which conducted significant aeronautical research that eventually included rockets before and after World War II. Long after the agency was folded into NASA’s creation, NACA’s groundbreaking research lives on in airfoil profiles and NACA ducts that are still employed today. From even before it existed until today, research remains the core focus of NASA.

In contrast, the FAA exists as a regulator. The FAA’s primary concern is safety. Regarding commercial space operations, the FAA explicitly targets the safety of the uninvolved public. Space operations are very risky when compared to traditional aviation. While everyone involved wants the operation to be as safe as possible for the participants, there is a significant amount of risk involved in all space operations. Even well-funded and well-run government programs, like NASA’s Space Shuttle or the Soviet/Russian Soyuz, experienced losses well after they matured.

The FAA focuses on a few key areas to regulate and support the nascent commercial space industry. “We license launch/reentry operations and site operators or spaceports, issue experimental permits, conduct safety inspections of launch and operation sites, and review payloads in coordination with our government partners,” explains Brian Verna, an engineer and senior advisor in AST. “The commercial space industry is in a very different phase than aviation,” Verna continued. “Commercial space is still emerging, so we work much more hands-on with applicants to help them get to a place where they are ready for licensing.”

Photo of rocket launch.
An FAA licensed commercial resupply mission to the International Space Station lifts off. (NASA photo by Tony Gray)

“Since 2011, we’ve seen a dramatic increase in the cadence of operations from three operations to 84 in 2022 and 92 projected in 2023,” Verna said. “Those numbers don’t include NASA or DOD who handle their own operations although both are increasingly turning toward commercial space launch services to augment their own capacity. With such a packed schedule and a growing list of applicants, we stay quite busy,” he continued.

“Licensing is key to what we do,” Verna explains. “We license the launch or reentry of vehicles produced by U.S. companies and launched domestically or internationally. So we even have some launches licensed in New Zealand and this year licensed the first commercial space launch in the United Kingdom.” He continued, “We don’t license or certificate the launch or reentry vehicles themselves. We license the operation because each operator has their own systems and vehicles.” The current state of commercial space operations would resemble air carrier operations if United or American Airlines would not only operate and maintain their fleet, but also design and build it. This means there is little commonality amongst the designs, but quite a bit between the operations. Plus, this focuses on the FAA’s primary concern, ensuring the safety of the uninvolved public.

Space Map

“In 1997, AST had about 40 employees that covered 17 commercial launches,” Kelvin Coleman, the Associate Administrator of AST, explains. “That grew to 26 FAA-licensed operations in 2017. But in the last six years the industry has taken off, we had a record-breaking 84 total operations last year [2022]. That’s a 223% increase!” He continued, “We’re proud of our perfect public safety record throughout such a fantastic period of innovation and expansion, and fortunately this year Congress recognized our needs and approved an increase in funding that will allow us to grow our staff to address the needs of the industry.” Coleman attributes their overall success to the exceptional contributions of dedicated FAA employees and industry partners.

AST Associate Administrator Kelvin Coleman (2nd from right) with FAA employees (left to right) Dr. Paul Wilde, Diane Doran, Sherman Council, and Jeff Holmes at Vandenberg Space Force Base.

AST is comprised of two directorates, the Office of Operational Safety and the Office of Strategic Management. The Office of Operational Safety tends to most of the day-to-day operations of AST. Their role would be akin to our Fight Standards District Offices (FSDO) in that they work directly with the operators. The Office of Strategic Management is similar to the headquarters division role that provides policy, guidance, and support to the inspectors and analysts in the field doing the direct work with operators. This also includes functions like rulemaking and administrative support. Additionally, AST’s Office of Spaceports supports commercial spaceports across the country.

In some ways, AST is a space-based miniature version of the FAA’s regulatory structure in whole. Given the expected growth in the commercial space industry, AST adopted this structure to realign for greater efficiency. This more robust structure allowed for more manageable spans of control.

What Goes Up?

One of the keys to AST’s operation is partnership. AST works with other offices within the FAA, particularly the Air Traffic Organization, as well as other government agencies. While no government agency has control of space, AST is charged with reviewing the payload of each commercial operation. This is a collaborative process with other government agencies to ensure that a payload doesn’t present a problem once it arrives in space. This can be a complicated process even when there is entirely noble intent. At least one applicant is working on launching a nuclear power source for use in spacecraft. This technology allows long-range missions with a more reliable and powerful energy source than solar alone. This can be critical for operations moving away from solar energy. But as you can imagine, it requires working with other agencies to ensure the safety of the launch and failsafe procedures in the event of an anomaly. Innovative technology requires a certain amount of risk, but AST’s job is to ensure the public does not bear the risk.

Photo of rocket launch.
Northrop Grumman Antares rocket launches from Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport with Cygnus resupply spacecraft onboard. (NASA photo by Bill Ingalls)

Human space flight is the next big field that looms large over the future of AST. “AST was specifically given additional resources to address human space flight safety,” Coleman said. “Currently we are in, what we refer to as the ‘regulatory preparation period,’ so that in the event the learning period is allowed to expire in October, we have several ongoing efforts to engage with our industry partners.”

“Right now, we’re operating under an informed consent model for human space flight participants,” Verna said. “That’s based on a moratorium from a congressional mandate that limits the FAA from issuing regulations on human space flight until October 2023.”

Verna mentioned that the FAA will be providing an update to its Recommended Practices for Human Space Flight Occupant Safety later this year for the first time since 2014. “This is part of our effort to modernize our guidance should the moratorium end later this year,” he continued. “We wouldn’t be in a place to issue new regulations in October, but we are working with industry and our government partners to chart a path forward.”

“In addition to updating the recommended practices, we are also preparing for an aerospace rulemaking committee, called a SpARC, which is an opportunity for industry to share their input,” Coleman explains. “We will continue to engage with industry to establish best practices and look for consensus on voluntary standards to improve safety for everyone.”

One of the critical adversities AST has faced is how to do something that hasn’t been done before. “Given the emerging nature of the commercial space market and the need to accommodate unforeseen approaches, we’ve been moving from a prescriptive to a performance-based licensing model,” said Verna.

AST is in the process of changing its licensing of launch and reentry vehicle operations from those existing in 14 CFR parts 415, 417, 431, and 435 to the new, streamlined licensing of part 450. Part 450 combines the concepts from the previous parts into the new performance-based framework. “This change allows us to focus on safety goals without relying on sets of prescriptive requirements to achieve the same safety outcomes.” This dovetails with the FAA’s broader approach to regulation, which has been shifting to performance-based rules for over a decade. “Part 450 allows us to issue a single license for multiple launches from multiple locations instead of licensing every launch from every location and every trajectory separately,” he continued. “We aim to allow innovation while protecting the public, and part 450 helps accomplish that.”

Ultimately FAA’s role with commercial space transportation is to protect the public while allowing this nascent industry to mature and innovate. AST has a perfect safety record in protecting the public, and the FAA aims to keep it that way even with the massive future growth.

Learn More

🚀 FAA’s Commercial Space homepage:

James Williams is FAA Safety Briefing’s associate editor and photo editor. He is also a pilot and ground instructor.

This article was originally published in the May/June 2023 issue of FAA Safety Briefing magazine.



FAA Safety Briefing
Cleared for Takeoff

Official FAA safety policy voice for general aviation. The magazine is part of the national FAA Safety Team (FAASTeam).