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Is the FAA Helping or Hindering SpaceX's Ambitions?

Mihir Tripathy
Hyunjin Kim
February 20, 202410:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)

Although its jurisdiction is within the U.S., FAA standards are often adopted by similar international agencies. 

From overseeing tens of thousands of aircraft navigating the vast US airspace, to regulating space launches, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) stands as the central government agency tasked with ensuring public safety both in the skies and on the ground.

Historically, NASA and the U.S. Air Force held responsibility for space and rocket launch activities, a standard practice since the inception of U.S. rocket launches. This included overseeing missions such as Mercury, Gemini, the Apollo Program, Space Shuttle missions, and various other U.S. Air Force launches. High costs and substantial investments required for space launch technology meant that such endeavors were predominantly government-led. However, this dynamic shifted significantly with the emergence of the commercial launch industry.

In 1982, a small company with 7 employees planned to conduct a space launch from Matagorda island in the Gulf of Mexico. Space Services Inc. (SSI) developed the Conestoga rocket, launching it into suborbital flight to demonstrate that a private company could indeed reach space, even capturing the attention of President Reagan. SSI enlisted Deke Slayton, NASA’s first Astronaut Chief and one of the seven Mercury astronauts, to oversee the launch operation. Obtaining approval for the launch proved to be slow, complex, and costly. At that time, the U.S. lacked regulatory means to manage or prevent such a launch, forcing the company to navigate through 18 different government agencies and secure 10 different approvals.

Despite capturing significant attention, SSI’s launch alone did not kickstart a commercialized space sector. Instead, NASA's Shuttle program, marketed to the White House as a “space taxi” capable of weekly launches, played a pivotal role. This vision led to the retirement of the U.S. fleet of expendable rockets—Delta, Atlas, and Titan—critical for military space access, thereby making the U.S. Air Force fully dependent on the Shuttle and leaving it without independent access to space—a concern for the Air Force due to arising issues with the Shuttle.

The U.S. Air Force, alongside the contractors of the expendable rockets—McDonnell Douglas (Delta), General Dynamics (Atlas), and Martin Marietta (Titan)—successfully lobbied the White House to support the burgeoning commercial space launch industry by privatizing their fleet of launch vehicles. These companies proposed to produce and sell launch services not just to the Air Force but also to other entities. In response, President Reagan signed an executive order establishing the Office of Commercial Space Transport (OCST) to oversee and regulate private space activities. Assigned to the Department of Transportation after a keen competition with the Department of Commerce, this decision was made under the stipulation that the office would not fall under the FAA's jurisdiction, due to concerns that the FAA's stringent regulatory approach might stifle the growth of this nascent industry.

As commercial space launches became increasingly feasible thanks to relaxed regulations, new challenges emerged for these companies, such as accessing launch pads, securing insurance, and navigating the export licensing process. These commercial entities, also contractors for the U.S. Air Force (USAF) and NASA, found themselves in a precarious position, unable to directly address these issues with the agencies managing their contracts without risking their business relationships. Here, the OCST played a crucial role, quickly establishing a reputation for fostering the growth of the commercial space industry with their motto "Blue Skies; not red tape," highlighting their commitment to minimal regulation.

The agency even entertained the idea of industry self-regulation, supported by studies indicating that commercial space launch activities posed minimal public risk.

However, in a significant shift in 1995, the Clinton administration transferred OCST to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), despite the original agreement to keep it separate. The division within the FAA was now headed by the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST). The agency's objectives remained the same: to license every commercial rocket launch and re-entry. The FAA/AST's role was to regulate the commercial launch industry to ensure public safety on the ground and to uphold the United States' national security and foreign policy interests, all while maintaining regulation at a minimum to support the growth and development of the industry.

In 1998, under the leadership of Patti Grace Smith, the newly integrated Office of Commercial Space Transportation within the FAA marked a milestone when the Mojave Air and Space Port in California became the first inland commercial spaceport licensed by the administration. It was during Smith's tenure that the spaceport hosted a historic event: the launch of SpaceShipOne in May of 2003. The privately developed crewed spacecraft was funded by Paul Allen and designed by Burt Rutan’s company, Scaled Composites. This event was likened to the Wright Brothers' first flight, setting the stage for the future of the commercial human spaceflight industry.

This groundbreaking mission coincided with discussions about retiring the Space Shuttle due to escalating costs and safety concerns. The success of SpaceShipOne's suborbital flight led Congress to direct the Secretary of Transportation to oversee the safety of the burgeoning commercial human spaceflight sector, limiting the FAA's rule-making authority to issues that could lead to catastrophic failures and encouraging collaboration with industry to enhance safety.

Increasing Conflicts

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) was created to lightly regulate the commercial launch sector. For a long time, Lockheed Martin and Boeing largely dominated this industry. During this era, OCST's regulations became outdated and stagnant, with little effort towards modernization until SpaceX's significant entrance with its Falcon 9 rocket, sparking considerable tension with the FAA.

In 2017, SpaceX’s President, Gwynne Shotwell, advocated for deregulation at the National Space Council's first meeting, emphasizing the need for updated regulations to match technological advances and the frequency of launches from the United States to bolster a robust and competitive domestic launch industry.

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“If we want to achieve rapid progress in space, the U.S. government must remove bureaucratic practices that run counter to innovation and speed,” Shotwell said.

“Regulations written decades ago must be updated to keep pace with the new technologies and the high cadence of launch from the United States if we want a strong space launch industry here at home,” she added.

Tensions between the FAA and SpaceX heightened with the development of SpaceX's Starship in Boca Chica, Texas, especially during the SN8 prototype launch, which ended explosively due to Raptor engine issues during landing. The FAA's subsequent investigation into the SN8 incident, which included a launch license violation, delayed the SN9 prototype test, revealing a need for updated regulatory approaches.

On December 8, 2021, SpaceX launched the SN8 on a suborbital trajectory. The prototype successfully reached its maximum altitude of 12.5 kilometers (8 miles). However, the mission ended with an explosive landing, attributed to issues with the Raptor engines during the landing burn. A failure typically leads to the FAA grounding the rocket until the necessary corrective measures are implemented by the company. However, the SN8 launch had an additional complication.

SpaceX had violated its launch license with the SN8 flight, indicating that the FAA had not certified this specific suborbital launch of the Starship prototype in the first place. The investigation into the mishap, conducted jointly by the FAA and SpaceX, delved into both the technical aspects of the landing failure and the broader cultural issues within SpaceX that allowed the launch to proceed initially. This comprehensive scrutiny significantly impacted the timeline for the next Starship test launch, involving the SN9 prototype.

Although SN9 was technically ready for launch, the process was delayed as FAA officials were still going through their license review process for the test because of several changes SpaceX made in its license application. The FAA's heightened vigilance was a direct response to the changes SpaceX had made in its application following the SN8 incident. Frustrated by this lengthy and time-consuming process, Elon tweeted, “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure. Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities.”

“Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

The licensing hurdles continued as the company pivoted to carry out orbital test flights with Starship and the Superheavy boosters. The initial plan for the Boca Chica launch site, now known as Starbase, was to support an expanding launch schedule for the Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. The FAA had certified SpaceX to conduct up to 12 commercial launches per year from this site, including two Falcon Heavy launches. However, this plan did not materialize as expected. In 2018, SpaceX announced a change in strategy, deciding to use Starbase exclusively for the development and launch of Starship. This shift presented a new regulatory challenge: SpaceX did not have a launch license for Starship to launch from Starbase. Consequently, the FAA needed to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) of the launch site to certify Starship for orbital launches.

Their first orbital attempt in April 2023 had extensively damaged the launch pad and resulted in widespread debris across the site as the rocket lifted off. Following repairs to the launch pad and the implementation of corrective measures to prevent such incidents, SpaceX still found itself waiting for approval from both the FAA and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, who were still evaluating whether the implemented measures were sufficient to prevent major environmental impact in the future.

SpaceX's Starship program is ambitious with plans for dramatically lower costs and much larger payloads to currently inaccessible destinations in the solar system. But SpaceX seems far from an operational cadence that would bring those goals in reach. They would like to begin deploying their next-gen Starlink satellites, specifically designed for launch aboard Starship, and also fulfill their promise to return humans to the Moon. In 2021, NASA awarded SpaceX $2.89 billion to develop a lunar lander based on their Starship architecture to land humans back to the Moon.

SpaceX’s success would mean progress for NASA and the United States’ goals for the Artemis program and the company believes that a slow certification process is hindering national interests.

During a Senate Hearing in October 2023, SpaceX’s vice president for Build and Flight Reliability, Bill Gerstenmaier urged Congress to streamline regulations and increase the FAA/AST headcount for a faster issuance of space launch licenses, emphasizing that the office needs at least twice the resources they have today. Gerstenmaier was the former chief of human spaceflight at NASA.

Over the past few years, the number of orbital launches is increasing year after year. SpaceX flew 94 times in 2023 and plans to launch 150 times this year. With a launch scheduled every 4 days, it’s increasingly difficult for the FAA to manage the hectic pace.

SpaceX believes that the FAA workforce hasn’t increased with the boom in launch cadence. According to the Washington Post, the FAA's Space Division has been calling for more resources for several years, but with little luck. To get Starship’s launch license, the agency had to shift the resources allocated for SpaceX to support the operational Falcon 9 launches, meaning that Starship’s fast pace began to interfere with the company’s Falcon missions. SpaceX was competing with itself to secure more launches.

At the Senate hearing, SpaceX argued that developmental programs with national importance should be given priority, stating that it took 2 years for them to secure the license for the initial launch and many months for the second.

“We’ve been ready to fly for a few weeks now,” said SpaceX senior Vice President Tim Hughes, who oversees global business and government affairs for the company. “And we’d very much like the government to be able to move as quickly as we are. If you’re able to build a rocket faster than the government can regulate it, that’s upside down, and that needs to be addressed. So we think some regulatory reforms are needed.” 

“There should be some sort of prioritization relative to programs of national importance,” Hughes said. “For instance, launches that serve the Artemis program. One would think that those would be treated with the utmost efficiency, all within the context of protecting public safety.”

Ever since its inception, FAA/AST has licensed over 634 launches, 34 of them being commercial human spaceflight missions (as of the writing of this article). After the Senate hearing, lawmakers of the US Senate’s space and science subcommittee pushed the FAA/AST to accelerate the approval of the commercial launches, citing the new space race between the United States and China. In response, the FAA is working to hire additional staff and prepare for a substantial increase in launch cadence in the coming years. But, recruiting high talent has been difficult.

The Government Accountability Office (GAO) mentioned in its report that in one instance, the FAA didn’t receive an adequate candidate pool for 4 out of 10 human spaceflight-related positions for which it has been actively recruiting. Over 50% of those came from NASA having had the experience in crewed flights via the Commercial Crew program. The best people with the recent knowledge and experience of human and non-human spaceflight are the ones working in the industry themselves, thereby making it incredibly difficult for the FAA to hire them.

The agency also created a new aerospace rulemaking committee (SpARC) to streamline the launch and re-entry licensing processes. The committee will work in tandem with the industry partners and help the FAA review and approve spaceflight activities as fast as possible without compromising safety procedures.

It remains to be seen if the FAA will be able to handle the growing Falcon’s launch manifest and the ever-accelerating pace of Starship’s development program. FAA’s administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, Kelvin Coleman, said that SpaceX is targeting an aggressive launch schedule this year, amounting to at least 9 Starship launches. Across these 9 launches, Starship might undergo various design changes, adding to the FAA's already burgeoning workload. Coleman assures that they’ll be working together with SpaceX to ensure that regulatory oversight minimally impacts launch operations while upholding their stringent safety standards, which have contributed to making modern flights and rocket launches some of the safest in history.

Mihir Tripathy
Hyunjin Kim
February 20, 202410:00 PM UTC (UTC +0)