DOT: Commercial Space ‘Takes Off’

According to the Department of Transportation (DOT), “the size of the global space economy, which combines satellite services and ground equipment, government space budgets, and global navigation satellite services (GNSS) equipment, is estimated to be about $345B.”   Interestingly, government space budgets only account for $83 billion, or a little under 25 percent of the total.  A robust commercial space launch industry is necessary to keep up with increasing demand.  Unfortunately, government regulation of the commercial space launch industry has not kept up with this explosive growth. 

The DOT is, however, attempting to fix that problem, and create a new regulatory regime that will take the industry into the second half of the 21st century.  A new rulemaking, which formally published in the Federal Register on April 15, 2019, is described as a “deregulatory action” that will require a single license for all types of commercial space flight operations and replace the “prescriptive requirements with performance-based criteria.”  The “performance based” approach is similar to the one the government has followed in opening the national airspace system to unmanned aircraft.  The idea is to preserve safety while at the same time, providing increased flexibility for innovators to pursue new approaches to operations.  The government projects that the:

proposed rule would reduce the costs of current and future launch operations by removing prescriptive requirements that are burdensome to meet or require a waiver. The FAA expects these changes would lead to more efficient launch operations and have a positive effect on expanding the number of future launch and reentry operations.

Given the scope of these regulatory changes, it is not a surprise that the document exceeds 500 pages.  Like most major rulemakings, the publication of the proposed rule included a 60-day period for the public to submit comments.  Currently, the FAA has received 59 comments, most from commercial launch companies and academic groups.  Those comments, however, uniformly stated that, given the size and complexity of the rules, which took over a year for the FAA to draft, 60 days was insufficient to do a full analysis, and requesting that the comment period be extended.  The FAA has agreed and has extended the comment period an additional 60 days.  As a result, comments can now be submitted through mid-August.

The DOT is to be commended for thinking outside the box and restructuring the commercial launch license system.  Given the time and effort that is necessary to issue new regulations, it is vitally important that the DOT get this rule right.  Extending the notice and comment period to permit a full analysis of the rules and to provide additional input from stakeholders will result in a short delay, but will provide long term benefits.

 

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