The Navigable Airspace and How High Is Up?

A few days ago, an FAA official asked Congress to give the FAA authority to regulate,  not only the launch and re-entry of commercial space vehicles, but orbital operations as well.

Currently, the FAA’s authority is limited to launch and re-entry, both of which require the rocket to travel through the navigable airspace.  The FAA has to be able to coordinate these activities with aircraft operating in the same airspace.  What the FAA is seeking now, however, is the authority to regulate those spacecraft after they achieve orbit.

A couple of questions occur to Plane-ly Spoken, including, where’s NASA on this issue?  Common sense suggests to us that with the absence of a NASA manned space program and the demise of the shuttle, NASA has a lot of time on their hands.  They would certainly seem to possess the expertise to get the job done.  Perhaps Congress can ask NASA these questions while they are looking into the aftermath of the Antares rocket explosion a few days ago.

The FAA has a couple of reasons why they believe their expansion into space is justified.  They argue that they need to be involved to ensure that the regulatory framework for space will keep up with new technology and new investment.  FAA also claims that they can provide the United States with an opportunity to influence, coordinate and reconcile different systems, in different countries.

A lot of this is awfully familiar.  In the UAS world, the FAA UAS Integration Office has the lead, and they are methodically trying to play catch up.  Would a new FAA Space Integration Office be in any different position?  Wouldn’t the FAA be better off focusing its efforts on finishing their UAS work before they ask to be given authority to regulate the world of orbital space operations?

Does it really make sense for the FAA to journey into outer space when so much remains to be done below 400 feet?  Isn’t NASA better suited to the task of regulating outer space?  Can’t these two agencies, which have worked pretty well together for as long as we can remember, put a regulatory structure together with NASA in the lead and allow them to regulate orbital operations?

The FAA has defined navigable airspace as being from the ground up.  We think that in the context of commercial space operations, it is entirely appropriate to ask “how high is up?” We think we know what the FAA would say, but does that answer really make any sense?

(Originally posted October 31, 2014)

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