Commercial Space Transportation Activities

For this new space law article, let’s look at the Commercial Space Transportation Activities. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation, generally referred to as FAA/AST, is the branch of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that approves any commercial rocket launch operations (any launches that are not classified as model, amateur, or “by and for the government”) in the case of a U.S. launch operator and/or a launch from the U.S..

With the signing of Executive Order 12465 on February 25, 1984, Ronald Reagan designated the Department of Transportation to be the lead agency for commercial expendable launch vehicles. This selection occurred following an interagency competition between the Departments of Commerce and Transportation to be the lead agency. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (OCST) was established in late 1984.

Under Public International Law, the nationality of the launch operator and the location of the launch determines which country is liable or responsible for any damage that occurs (Article VI and Article VII of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty). As a result, the United States of America requires that rocket manufacturers and launchers adhere to specific regulations to carry insurance and protect the safety of people and property that may be affected by a flight.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation also regulates launch sites, publishes quarterly launch forecasts, and holds annual conferences with the space launch industry. The office is headed by the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST).

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is responsible for ensuring protection of the public, property, and the national security and foreign policy interests of the United States of America during commercial launch or reentry activities, and to encourage, facilitate, and promote U.S. commercial space transportation. To date, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has licensed or permitted more than three hundred and eighty launches and reentries.

The FAA safety inspectors monitor the FAA-licensed activities including launches from foreign countries and international waters. The Federal Aviation Administration has the authority to suspend or revoke any license or issue fines when a commercial space operator is not in compliance with statutory or regulatory requirements. Currently, commercial spaceflight crew and participants engage in spaceflight operations through “informed consent”. Informed consent regulations require crew and spaceflight participants to be informed, in writing, of mission hazards and risks, vehicle safety record, and the overall safety record of all launch and reentry vehicles. Prior to flight, crew and spaceflight participants must provide their written consent to participate.

The Office of Commercial Space Transportation is responsible for licensing private space vehicles and spaceports within the United States of America. This is in contrast with NASA, which is a research and development agency of the U.S. Federal Government, and as such neither operates nor regulates the commercial space transportation industry. The regulatory responsibility for the industry has been assigned to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which is a regulatory agency. NASA does, however, often use launch satellites and spacecraft on vehicles developed by private companies.

According to its legal mandate, the Office of Commercial Space Transportation has the responsibility to “regulate the commercial space transportation industry, only to the extent necessary to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interest of the United States”, “encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launches by the private sector”, “recommend appropriate changes in Federal statutes, treaties, regulations, policies, plans, and procedures”, “and facilitate the strengthening and expansion of the United States space transportation infrastructure”.

Commercial Space Transportation Activities: licensing

A Federal Aviation Administration license is required for any launch or reentry, or the operation of any launch or reentry site, by U.S. citizens anywhere in the world, or by any individual or entity within the United States of America. A Federal Aviation Administration license is not required for space activities the government carries out for the government, such as some NASA or Department of Defense launches.

Once the Federal Aviation Administration determines a license application package is complete, the FAA has one hundred and eighty days to make a licensing determination. The FAA licensing evaluation includes a review of “public safety issues, such as payload contents, national security or foreign policy concerns, insurance requirements for the launch operator, and potential environmental impact”.

Commercial Space Transportation Activities: experimental permits

The Federal Aviation Administration can issue experimental permits, rather than licenses, for the launch or reentry of reusable suborbital rockets. The FAA issues these permits for “research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques, showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license, and crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or reentry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued”. No person may operate a reusable suborbital rocket under such a permit for the purpose of carrying any property or human being for compensation or hire.

FAA currently licensed launch sites

The Federal Aviation Administration licenses commercial launch and reentry sites in the United States of America. The following are FAA currently licensed launch sites: Cape Canaveral Air Force Station (Florida), Cape Canaveral Spaceport/Shuttle Landing Facility (Florida), Cecil Field (Florida), Colorado Air & Space Port (Colorado), Ellington Airport (Texas), Midland International Airport (Texas), Mojave Air and Space Port (California), Oklahoma Air and Space Ports (Oklahoma), Pacific Spaceport Complex Alaska (Alaska), Spaceport America (New Mexico), Mid-Atlantic Regional Spaceport (Virginia).

An important part of the Office of Commercial Space Transportation’s statutory mission to encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space transportation is specifically in support of the continuous improvement of the safety of launch vehicles designed to carry humans. The FAA’s Commercial Astronaut Wings Program is designed to recognize flight crewmembers who further the FAA’s mission to promote the safety of vehicles designed to carry humans.

Astronaut Wings are given to flight crew who have demonstrated a safe flight to and return from space on an FAA/AST licensed mission. The FAA issued its first license for commercial human space flight on April 1, 2004 to Scaled Composites for the launch of SpaceShipOne (SS1).