The Importance of Incorporating the Regulatory Mindset into New Space Entrants’ Early Designs

Collin Corey
Inversion Space
Published in
10 min readSep 5, 2023

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Space licensing is a complex process, involving multiple government agencies, that can take significant amounts of time and resources. Navigating the regulations and understanding the order of operations, as well as reaching the right contacts as a new entrant, can be difficult to manage. Even knowing when to start the process is an important decision.

The key to all of this is incorporating a regulatory mindset in the early stages of design.

What does that mean? Simply stated, it’s understanding space flight regulations and incorporating requirements into the design of the vehicle from the very beginning, while maintaining an open, transparent relationship with the regulator. Though that may seem fairly straightforward, there is quite a bit more complexity to it than what that statement implies, which will be addressed. To start, it is helpful to understand some history and lessons learned.

Who regulates spaceflight?

In the United States, the Federal Aviation Administration Commercial Space Transportation (FAA-AST) division is the agency responsible for licensing space launch, reentry, and spaceports (for this discussion we will focus on launch and reentry). FAA-AST has had this role since 1995[1], licensing commercial space systems through their regulatory regime. Demand for FAA regulatory work is increasing significantly as new operators are entering the market. The number of licenses granted, launches, and reentry operations has increased dramatically over the past ten years, as visualized by the graphic below taken from FAA’s website. However, even with all these operations, as of June 2023 there are still currently only 22 active launch licenses and five active reentry licenses. Licensing is a difficult task to undertake. Most of the companies with licenses are either established companies with previous launches or larger companies with a significant work force. For reentry licenses alone, SpaceX makes up four of the five licenses, with Northrop holding the fifth.

Figure 1 — Launch and Reentry Operations[2]

There are a several other regulators/agencies that either require additional licenses or coordination. These are FAA Air Traffic Organization (ATO), Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Department of Defense (DOD), US Coast Guard, and Department of State (coordinated through FAA). The primary license, however, runs through FAA-AST.

FAA will have oversight during the process and ensure that coordination is taking place between the operator and other agencies as well. An FAA license may be granted with terms and conditions that all other licenses and agreements are in place prior to the mission.

What are the regulations?

Over the years, FAA has updated regulations to align with new technology and changing operations. In March of 2021, FAA released an updated set of rules that amends the previous set 14 CFR parts 415, 417, 431, and 435 by consolidating, updating, and streamlining all launch and reentry regulations into a single part 450[3].

Part 450 was developed to encompass all launch and reentry vehicles. The regulations were changed to be less prescriptive and offer operators additional means of compliance. The regulations allow for one license to cover multiple launches and/or reentries over a period of five years. Overall, the regulations are set up to grow the industry while ensuring safety of the public, neighboring operations, and operators.

Regulators will evaluate everything from ground operations through launch, initial orbit, and reentry (if that is part of the mission). Safety aspects of propellants used, flight safety of the vehicle, and mitigations to prevent hazards are some of the major areas scrutinized on an application. These three points can significantly impact schedule for regulatory approval, which is why it is so important to start working with regulators early in the process and build the necessary requirements into the design.

Since Part 450’s implementation, there have been four launch companies to receive a license. There have been zero reentry licenses granted at the time of writing.

Collaboration is important to these regulations, which is why Part 450 requires a pre-application consultation phase where the operator can introduce FAA to their system and lead them through the design. Much of the unofficial review work will be conducted in this phase in order to streamline the official application review period. An official review may take up to 180 days to complete. If that period elapses, a toll or hold, may be placed on the application for the applicant to revise or add material.

Approval timelines and challenges

FAA has released some data on previous application timelines. In the excerpt below, extracted from the proposed rulemaking[4] for Part 450, FAA describes statistics on a set of license reviews:

The average of the last ten new license determinations through calendar year 2018 was 141 days; the median was 167 days. The FAA strives to expedite determinations when possible to accommodate launch schedules. In three of these ten, the FAA made determinations in 54, 73, and 77 days, all without tolling. Three determinations were tolled for 73, 77, and 171 days. The lengthy tolling was the result of a software issue concerning a flight safety system that the applicant needed to resolve.

As stated in the final sentence, the extended period to approve one of the licenses was due to software in a flight safety system. Plenty of lessons can be learned from these types of delays. In this instance, the delay could likely have been much shorter with the proper FAA coordination prior to application submission. While knowledge of requirements and acceptance of standards is the first step, demonstrating the actual implementation and, further, verifying and validating those requirements — is a more complex second step. At this stage, working with FAA on methodologies is important. Part 450 helps to eliminate some of these missteps by requiring an approved “Means of Compliance” for flight safety analysis prior to accepting an application. This is a forcing function for early coordination and approval of a major component before stepping further into the process.

Each operator will inevitably still encounter hurdles throughout the process since this is a complex task to complete. However, these challenges can be overcome through ongoing agency coordination and constantly keeping in mind how regulators will review the system.

Designing toward regulatory requirements

Delays to first flights due to lack of regulatory approval can be incredibly costly to a business. These delays will often come in the 11th hour of a development campaign. Predominately, the aspects of a vehicle that get hung up during regulatory review were decided on at the very earliest stages of development. As such, it is critical that in the early stages of design, new space companies have a detailed understanding of regulations and use that understanding to influence technical requirements. The regulations are not all prescribed requirements; many will need to be interpreted and some will require the operator to determine on their own how best to comply. Subsystems such as propulsion, flight software, flight termination, and trajectory design are examples of systems that will directly relate to regulatory requirements and require substantial time and money to change when the system is in a mature state. While constructing these systems, referring to the regulations, standards, and guidance documents of the appropriate agency will provide a smoother path to compliance. Starting with these requirements will allow the operator to feed derived requirements to the subsystems and design the regulations into the system. Working with FAA early in the process and having a focus on developing requirements for systems that relate to public and personnel safety is a good place to start.

FAA’s primary interest is safety, so it is important to focus on how each part of a vehicle can create hazards. Flight safety is always one of the more complex areas to determine compliance and obtain agreement from FAA, but it’s also one of the most important to ensure that public safety is maintained. Flight safety is the process of verifying that the flight of the vehicle will not cause a hazard to the public. Flight Safety Analysis reviews population data and helps determine a trajectory that will avoid overflight of those populations, ensuring safety to the public. Flight safety mitigations may include redundancy, qualification testing, and detailed analyses, among other concepts. It is important for a new company to decide early in the process what their program philosophy is as related to safety, and how it is to be implemented. For instance, a program may rely on fault tolerance (the process that enables a system to continue operating in the event of one or more failures) to protect against hazards. The company will then need to create an internal philosophy that assigns the number of faults a system can withstand before a vehicle failure occurs. Ideally, this should be undertaken with the assistance of regulators, in order to confirm acceptance at a later stage. Many approaches that mitigate safety-related hazards have a secondary benefit of also adding reliability to the system. All of these methods can prevent a mission failure while protecting public safety. For instance, a Flight Termination System (FTS) on a rocket often will terminate the flight by cutting thrust to the engines. Typically, verification of a functional FTS requires propellant valves to undergo standards-based qualification testing that will screen out any valve that cannot perform this duty, therefore protecting the public and eliminating that same valve from pre-mature failure (i.e. failure to open), which would result in a mission failure. In this example, it is shown that steps taken to increase the safety of the system also increase the reliability but have the negative impact of longer timelines and more costs. As such, it is critical to find the most efficient path to reaching safety levels that will be satisfactory to the FAA.

In the example above, an FTS can be designed to terminate a flight, but if the system errs too far on the side of safety assurance cost and timeline overruns will occur. If the system errs too far towards optimizing costs and time, regulatory approval will not be granted. There is a balance between the two that will need to be solved early in development. The figure below illustrates this concept. If the balance is understood, an operator will design satisfactory safety systems to meet FAA criteria while managing conservatism to prevent cost and schedule overruns. The figure shows some concepts of acceptable safety verification methods that can be implemented to meet regulatory requirements before adding unnecessary additional controls.

Figure 2 — The Balancing Act between Approval and Conservatism

Again, coordination with FAA comes back into focus here, as the extremes of both approaches will result in delays to the first flight. Before going down a design route that is overly expensive and time consuming, to make sure one is in compliance it is beneficial to review the design with FAA to understand if the system is overly conservative and if a less conservative approach would pass FAA approval without jeopardizing safety.

The takeaway from this is that when companies design within the regulatory requirements from the start, license approval will have a smoother path, safety is maintained, and reliability of the system is improved.

Best practices for engagement

The pre-application consultation phase should be started as soon as possible. During this period, many of the design decisions will be made and working with FAA to demonstrate a company’s commitment to compliance early on can prevent costly changes later. A back and forth with FAA experts during monthly meetings, Technical Interchange Meetings, and regular correspondence are key to demonstrating compliance and receiving feedback on potential issues during the review period.

FAA should be considered a partner in this process rather than an adversary.

Transparency will go a long way with the regulator as well. FAA should be considered a partner in this process rather than an adversary. FAA can help with learning from past operator mistakes, but this can only happen if the program is transparent and open to sharing throughout the process.

Why it all matters

Everyone has heard the saying “space is hard,” and that is especially true for new entrants. Statistically, new launch vehicles fail at a much higher rate[5] on the first flight attempt. Without a structured safety review, the public could be endangered. Launch and reentry vehicles can pose a hazard if not properly designed. Adhering to regulations and partnering with the experts behind them can prevent that hazard by completing ongoing reviews of the system and ensuring compliance to the leading standards.

Not only do regulations protect the public but they protect the industry itself. Imagine a launch vehicle veering off course and impacting a city. A failure like that would imperil the industry, and trust would take years to regain. FAA has proven to be a valued partner in this process and has prevented any major events that would jeopardize the industry.

From the company perspective, a delay in approval due to non-compliance can be a death sentence for a startup, where months truly matter. Unlike many aspects of startups, FAA approval is not something that can be forced or worked around for re-entry start-ups. As such, it is critical to engage early, make design decisions that are considerate of regulations, and build relationships with regulators to get feedback on your vehicle.

It is in everyone’s interest to embrace the regulatory mindset while designing space systems.

Key Benefits of Adopting a Regulatory Mindset

1. Prevents application rejection delays.

2. Ensures a smoother path to compliance.

3. Avoids cost overruns.

4. Overcomes inevitable hurdles faster.

5. Aids in development of company’s safety program philosophy.

6. Improves system reliability.

7. Enhances design safety.

8. Avoids past operator mistakes.

9. Enhances reputation of both company and industry.

About the Author

Collin Corey is the Head of Regulatory Licensing at Inversion Space Company where he works with regulators to license innovative reentry space vehicles. Collin has held positions at Virgin Orbit and Aerospace Corporation prior to Inversion leading regulatory and mission assurance teams.

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