FAA expects revised launch regulations to be completed next fall

Space

LAS CRUCES, N.M. — The head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office says he expects to have updated commercial launch and reentry regulations completed by next fall, but hasn’t decided if there will be another draft of the rules published before then.

In an Oct. 9 speech at the International Symposium for Personal and Commercial Spaceflight (ISPCS) here, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said his office is expending significant resources to review comments submitted on the draft rule published in April.

That draft, formally known as a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM), garnered significant feedback from the commercial launch industry and other industry observers, many of whom were critical with the overall direction of the rule that’s intended to streamline the licensing process. Monteith said that more than 150 comments were submitted, as well as more than 100 questions seeking clarification about the rule, by the time the public comment period closed in August.

“The comments, as you can imagine, went across the entire spectrum,” he said. Some offered line-by-line comments of the NPRM, while others simply dismissed it as “terrible” without much additional detail. “Not quite as helpful.”

The FAA is now reviewing the comments, a long process given the number of comments and length of the rule. “Three days a week, we have two- to three-hour meetings on every single portion of this rule, as we attempt to get it right,” he said.

That is taking up a significant fraction of the office’s budget and personnel. Monteith estimated that about 20% of the office’s workforce and 10% of the budget is devoted to the rulemaking activity. The office has about 100 people and a fiscal year 2019 appropriation of nearly $25 million.

Monteith said that the FAA still planned to release a final rule by the fall of 2020, a deadline announced by the Department of Transportation at the Aug. 20 meeting of the National Space Council. He said he’s made no decision about whether the FAA will go directly to that final rule or, in the interim, publish an updated draft, known as a supplemental NPRM, that will offer another opportunity for public comment.

“That depends on the scope of the changes that may need to occur in the rule,” he said. A supplemental NPRM would be warranted if there is enough of a change in the draft rule based on public comments “that we essentially need to start over.”

Many in the industry have pressed the FAA to release a supplemental rule to address their perceived deficiencies in it. Language in the report accompanying the Senate’s version of a spending bill that funds the FAA last month also criticized the proposed rule and called on the FAA to “consider a supplemental NPRM prior to issuing a final rule in order to meet an artificial deadline.”

Even after the final rule is published, Monteith said there is more work for his office to do to update regulations, work he said is necessary to account for a changing industry that is launching more frequently and using new technologies, from Relativity Space’s additively manufactured rockets that can be quickly redesigned to SpinLaunch, a secretive startup pursuing a novel centrifugal launch technology.

That additional work ranges from revisions of spaceport regulations to experimental permits and insurance requirements. “This is probably going to be about a decade-long journey to get all of these done,” he said. “But they’ve got to be done to support where this industry is going.”

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