DC swamp moving to cancel Trump effort to cut red tape at FAA?

The inspector general of the Department of Transportation has instigated an investigation into the FAA’s recent effort, inaugurated during the Trump administration, to reduce the air space shuttered during launch operations in order to allow more launches with less interference with commercial air traffic.

“Over the past 5 years, FAA has gone from licensing about one commercial space launch per month to now licensing more than one launch every week,” Matthew Hampton, the assistant inspector general for aviation audits, said Wednesday in a memo announcing the probe.

The audit was requested by the ranking members of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation, Hampton said in the memo. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words are important. The “ranking members” in the House are Republicans. It appears members of the party supposedly in favor of free enterprise have decided to panic after the relatively minor flight deviation due to high winds that occurred during the Virgin Galactic suborbital flight in July, and are now working to shut down the FAA’s effort to launch more rockets while keeping commercial aviation functioning.

The recent decision to begin shrinking the restricted air space around launches results from the increasing sophistication of rockets. Though new rockets — such as the recent launch failures of Astra’s Rocket-3 and Firefly’s Alpha — do fail and require self-destruction during launch, the launch and flight termination technology today works quite well in better controlling the rocket. When something went wrong during both of these recent launches, the rockets compensated so that they were able to continue to fly to a much higher altitude, where the range officer could more safely destroy them. In the past, failing rockets such as these would have gone out of control, threatening a larger area both in the air and on the ground.

Thus, there now is less need to restrict as much space, unless you have the fantasy that you must rig things so that nothing can ever go wrong.

This fantasy has fueled the entire Wuhan flu panic. It rules the minds of many Washington bureaucrats and politicians, from both parties, who repeatedly declare that “If we can save one life, we must!” Meanwhile this vain effort fails in its main task, since things still go wrong, and the overwrought effort to overly protect people ends up doing more harm than good by squelching all achievement.

It now appears there are Republicans on both the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure and its Subcommittee on Aviation who believe in this fantasy. No wonder the Democrats always win in legislative battles. They have many hidden Republican allies.

FAA’s space bureaucracy chief touts desire to limit his agency’s regulatory fist

Wayne Monteith, the man in charge of the FAA’s office of commercial space — which is tasked with regulating commercial space — revealed in a speech on August 25, 2021 that his goal is to speed that industry’s growth, not hinder it with odious regulations.

Wayne R. Monteith, a retired Air Force general who served for years in space billets in Colorado Springs is now the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation. He told a Space Symposium crowd at The Broadmoor Wednesday that to a large extent, he’s trying to keep his agency out of the way of the rush to space. “A regulatory agency can either be an accelerator or an inhibitor of industry,” he said. “We choose to be an accelerator.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Don’t be so sure. While right now Monteith noted that the agency is taking a laissez-faire approach to anyone who wants to fly in space, acting only to make sure space accidents will not harm “the uninvolved public,” he also said this in his speech:

Monteith warned, though, that mishaps for manned space flight that escalate to what he called “catastrophe,” have consequences. “The worst case is a catastrophic failure,” he said. “Then, we will regulate.”

In other words, he recognizes that if he tried now to impose his bureaucratic will on commercial space, it would not fly politically. What he really needs to expand his power is some space accident, a crisis you might say, that he can then use to convince others that he should be controlling things more.

Based on the response of the press, public, and American culture in the past half century, his thinking is quite sound. Routinely since World War II, as soon as something goes wrong in any field of endeavor the American public and political class has repeatedly wanted the government to move in and take greater control, under the false premise that somehow the government can prevent further failures.

Instead, we have accomplished less, and fueled the rise of an all-powerful bureaucracy capable and quite willing to squelch achievement. This is the pattern that Monteith is relying on, and based on recent history, he is entirely justified in believing so.

The knives aimed at SpaceX are getting sharpened

Starship must be banned!
Banning Starship: The new goal of our leftist masters.

Two stories today mark what appears to be a growing political campaign focused on squelching by any means possible the continued unparalleled success of the company SpaceX. And the simultaneous publication of both stories on the same day also suggests that this campaign is deliberately timed to force the FAA to shut down SpaceX at Boca Chica.

First we have a story at Space.com aimed at SpaceX’s Starlink constellation, making it the big villain in the growing threat of satellite collisions.

SpaceX’s Starlink satellites alone are involved in about 1,600 close encounters between two spacecraft every week, that’s about 50 % of all such incidents, according to Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton, U.K. These encounters include situations when two spacecraft pass within a distance of 0.6 miles (1 kilometer) from each other.

Lewis, Europe’s leading expert on space debris, makes regular estimates of the situation in orbit based on data from the Socrates (Satellite Orbital Conjunction Reports Assessing Threatening Encounters in Space ) database. This tool, managed by Celestrack, provides information about satellite orbits and models their trajectories into the future to assess collision risk.

Though his data appears accurate and the growing risk of collisions is real, it appears from the story that Lewis, one of only two experts interviewed, has a strong hostility to SpaceX. He doesn’t like the fact that SpaceX is so successful in such a short time, and appears to want something done to control it.

The article also nonchalantly sloughs off one very significant fact: Very few satellite collisions have actually occurred. While the risk is certainly going to increase, that increase is not going to be fueled just by SpaceX. At least four large constellations are presently in the works, all comparable to Starlink in some manner. To focus on SpaceX in particular makes this article appear like a hatchet job.

Then we have a news story from CBS and its very partisan and leftist news show, Sixty Minutes+, providing a loud soapbox for the very small number of anti-development environmentalists fighting to block SpaceX’s operations in Boca Chica, Texas.
» Read more

Eric Berger: FAA regulators should get out of the way

In a essay today for Ars Technica, Eric Berger makes note of the progress that SpaceX is making on its Starship/Superheavy rocket, and points out that the one major obstacle that SpaceX cannot control and that stands in its way is the revised “environmental assessment” the FAA still must approve to permit the rocket to launch from Boca Chica.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle of all will be clearance from the Federal Aviation Administration, which is working with SpaceX to conduct an environmental assessment of launching such a mammoth rocket from these South Texas wetlands. After a “draft” of this assessment is published, there will be an approximately 30-day period for public comments. This will be followed by other steps, including a determination by the FAA on whether SpaceX’s proposed environmental mitigations will be enough or if more work is required.

The stacking of the rocket late last week, and the photos released by Musk of that stacking, Berger sees as Musk’s effort to quietly apply pressure on those bureaucrats to get their work done already. As he writes, “Holding back Starship means holding back this progress, Musk wanted regulators to understand.”

Read the whole essay. In addition to illustrating the poltical games required by SpaceX to get past the stifling rules of our modern government, it very nicely shows how America has changed since the early 20th century. Then, no such regulators stood in the way, and Americans were thus about to build fast and with great skill, reshaping the cities of the world forever.

Though I expect the politics of the moment to favor SpaceX, forcing the FAA to get its work done quickly to allow the rocket to take off as planned, this is only going to happen because of the political clout SpaceX has with the public, and thus with politicians. For small companies no such clout exists, and thus expect U.S. innovation to continue to suffer in the coming years because we have given our govenrment too much power over our lives.

FAA threatens shutdown of SpaceX’s Starship program at Boca Chica

Banned by the FAA?
Starship banned by the FAA?

They’re coming for you next: An FAA official revealed yesterday that the agency has not approved the launch tower that SpaceX is building for its Starship/Superheavy rocket in Boca Chica, Texas, and threatened that if disapproved the government would force the company to tear it down.

The Federal Aviation Administration warned Elon Musk’s SpaceX in a letter two months ago that the company’s work on a launch tower for future Starship rocket launches is yet unapproved, and will be included in the agency’s ongoing environmental review of the facility in Boca Chica, Texas. “The company is building the tower at its own risk,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC on Wednesday, noting that the environmental review could recommend taking down the launch tower.

The FAA last year began an environmental review of SpaceX’s Starship development facility, as Musk’s company said it planned to apply for licenses to launch the next-generation rocket prototypes from Boca Chica. While the FAA completed an environmental assessment of the area in 2014, that review was specific to SpaceX’s much-smaller Falcon series of rockets.

This revelation from FAA officials is most interestingly timed, coming on the same day as this garbage article about the terrible environmental damages some activists imagine SpaceX’s launch facility might someday cause. As is usual for a mainstream news source, the article makes no reference to the wildlife preserve that surrounds the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where we have empirical proof for more than a half century that a spaceport does no harm to the environment and actually acts to protect it from development.

Nor was this the only such attack article in the past two days. Here is just a sampling:
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FAA approves Blue Origin’s license for commercial suborbital passenger flights

Capitalism in space: The FAA has approved the launch license for Blue Origin, allowing it to fly a commercial suborbital passenger flight using its New Shepard suborbital spacecraft later this month.

The company, founded by the former Amazon.com chief, is approved to conduct space flight missions from its Launch Site One facility in West Texas. The license is valid through August. “To gain license approval to carry humans, Blue Origin was required to verify that its launch vehicle’s hardware and software worked safely and as intended during a test flight,” the FAA said in a statement to FOX Business.

Bezos is scheduled to fly into space on July 20 on New Shepard’s 16th flight. Liftoff is targeted for 8 p.m. CDT, the company said. … The launch date marks the 52nd anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Bezos assigned himself to the flight just a month ago and asked his brother, Mark, to join him. Accompanying them will be a $28 million auction winner and Wally Funk, one of the last surviving members of the Mercury 13 who was chosen as an “honored guest.”

Expect the same kind of hype surrounding this short suborbital flight that accompanied Richard Branson’s flight this past weekend. The real big deal however will begin in September, when regular orbital tourist flights begin, with one almost every month for the rest of the year.

FAA initiates new prelaunch air space clearance system

FAA has now begun using a new prelaunch air space clearance system that is intended to shorten the time airplane travel is disturbed by the scheduled launch of a rocket.

[The FAA] developed the Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool to reduce how long ATO must close airspace around space launches and reentries. The system is voluntary. SpaceX, Blue Origin, Firefly, and the Alaska Aerospace Corporation are current partners. SDI was first used operationally for SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch last week and is being used for the SpaceX-22 Cargo Dragon reentry today.

…Space operators now are voluntarily sharing telemetry data including vehicle position, altitude and speed, as well as data if the vehicle deviates from its expected flight path. Asked when additional companies might join, Monteith said he would have to defer to ATO to answer that question.

…Using the automated SDI system coupled with “time-based procedures and dynamic windows,” the FAA expects to be able to shorten airspace closures “from an average of more than four hours per launch to just more than two hours” and eventually less.

The article makes no mention whether this new system will allow the FAA to shrink the closure areas as well, which was Elon Musk’s main complaint after SpaceX’s Transporter-2 launch near the end of June was scrubbed seconds before launch when a helicopter slipped into that airspace. As Musk wrote in a tweet,

Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the “keep out zone”, which is unreasonably gigantic. There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.

I suspect there is discussion to reduce the size of the closure areas, but I also suspect that the FAA is resisting industry calls to do so.

FAA approves commercial launch license for Virgin Galactic

Capitalism in space: FAA today approved Virgin Galactic’s commercial launch license, allowing it to fly commercial paying tourists on its suborbital spacecraft, VSS Unity.

When Virgin Galactic will begin doing so remains uncertain. There have been rumors that the company is thinking of quickly scheduling a flight carrying Richard Branson for July 4th, thus beating Jeff Bezos’s planned July 20th into space. However, the company has denied this, referring back to its announced schedule.

Virgin Galactic has previously set out a schedule for this year, as it continues to mold the kind of service it plans to offer its commercial customers. This would see four of the company’s employees climb aboard Unity (along with the two pilots) for the next flight, to get a sense of the experience that future ticketed passengers will enjoy.

The flight after that is likely to see Sir Richard himself go to the edge of space, as a statement of readiness for commercial service.

And it’s then on the subsequent outing that the company is expected to start earning revenue from carrying people – although this is a mission that has been block booked by the Italian Air Force, which is going to put several payload specialists aboard Unity to supervise a number of microgravity experiments.

Regardless of when Branson’s first flight will be, that first commercial flight will come about fourteen years after the date Branson first predicted for such a flight. In 2004 he predicted he would fly by 2007 after hundreds of test flights, followed then by more hundreds of commercial flights each year. None of that ever happened, nor does it look like the flight numbers will ever approach his prediction.

FAA, local Texas DA, and environmental group out to get SpaceX and Starship

Two news articles today suggest that a number of government officials, environmental groups, and some news media are beginning to team up to damage SpaceX and hinder its ability to succeed.

First we have this Verge article, aimed at suggesting that SpaceX violated its launch license and ignored FAA warnings not to launch during a December 9th test flight of the eighth Starship prototype.

Minutes before liftoff, Elon Musk’s SpaceX ignored at least two warnings from the Federal Aviation Administration that launching its first high-altitude Starship prototype last December would violate the company’s launch license, confidential documents and letters obtained by The Verge show. And while SpaceX was under investigation, it told the FAA that the agency’s software was a “source of frustration” that has been “shown to be inaccurate at times or overly conservative,” according to the documents.

The article generally takes the side of the FAA, suggesting that SpaceX was lax and nonchalant about the risks relating to weather and launch conditions, and proceeded with its launch even though FAA officials thought it unsafe. It also quotes Wayne Monteith, the head of the FAA’s space division, blasting SpaceX for showing “a concerning lack of operational control and process discipline that is inconsistent with a strong safety culture,” claiming that FAA software showed a risk to nearby buildings and homes should the rocket explode in the air.

However, buried far down in the article it also notes,
» Read more

FAA grants Rocket Lab permission to resume launches following launch failure

Capitalism in space: According to a press release from Rocket Lab yesterday, the FAA has granted it permission to resume launches following its May 15th launch failure when a problem with the rocket’s upper stage prevented it from reaching orbit.

Apparently the FAA is satisfied with the thoroughness of Rocket Lab’s investigation into the launch failure, and is thus willing to let launches resume, when the company itself decides it is ready. Rocket Lab’s investigation into the failure however is not complete. According to the press release:

The review team is working through an extensive fault tree analysis to exhaust all potential causes for the anomaly and the full review is expected to be complete in the coming weeks, following which Rocket Lab anticipates a swift return to flight.

Though that review continues, the company has not yet revealed what it thinks caused the upper stage to send the rocket and payload in the wrong direction upon ignition.

FAA approves next three Starship test flights with prototype #15

Capitalism in space: In a statement today the FAA announced that it has approved next three test flights of SpaceX’s Starship prototype #15.

From the statement:

The FAA has authorized the next three launches or the SpaceX Starship prototype. The agency approved multiple launches because SpaceX is making few changes on the launch vehicle and relied on the FAA’s approved methodology to calculate the risk to the public. The FAA authorized the launches on Wednesday, April 28.

This likely means that SpaceX will try a flight tomorrow.

Starship prototype #15 completes 2nd static fire test, waits FAA approval for flight

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s 15th Starship prototype completed its second static fire test in three days yesterday, and is presently poised to do its first test flight.

The scheduled road closures in Boca Chica suggest that they are aiming for either April 30th, May 1st, or May 2nd. However, it also appears they are awaiting FAA approval, which could be why they did a second static fire test. They can’t fly so rather than do nothing they reconfigured that second static fire to test the landing burn.

Musk returned to Twitter to state that this was a header tank test and that all looked good. This could mean Monday’s test was a launch static fire while Tuesday’s test was more of a landing burn static fire as the header tanks are used to supply landing propellants.

It also appears that SpaceX has had its flight application sitting at the FAA for about a week, with no action. Thus, it is the federal bureaucracy that appears to be slowing things down at this moment.

Starship prototype #15 readying for flight, possibly tomorrow

Starship #15 on launchpad
Screen capture from Labpadre launchpad live stream.

Capitalism in space: SpaceX’s 15th prototype of its Starship upper stage, is preparing to do a static fire test today, with its first test flight possibly as soon as tomorrow, though at present the FAA has not given its approval.

They have done tank tests already, and installed three upgraded Raptor engines yesterday. This spacecraft is a major upgrade from the previous prototypes, and SpaceX probably plans to eventually fly it higher and farther than the previous prototypes. Though no details about those flight plans has yet been released, the first flight will almost certainly repeat the previous flights, going up about ten miles, flipping sideways to simulate a controlled atmospheric descent, and then uprighting itself and landing vertical on the landing pad. Hopefully the upgrades will result in the first truly clean landing with this prototype.

Though the FAA under the Biden administration has seemed eager to flex its bureaucratic muscles and slow development, that NASA has chosen this vehicle as the one that will take astronauts to and from the Moon will put pressure on it to not slow things down too much.

FAA says it will “lead” investigation into Starship #11 crash yesterday

They’re coming for you next: The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced today that it will “oversee” the investigation into the crash at landing yesterday by SpaceX’s eleventh Starship prototype.

The Federal Aviation Administration, which had an inspector at SpaceX’s facilities to observe the test flight, said in a statement that the FAA will oversee the company’s investigation into the “prototype mishap.” The FAA has conducted similar mishap investigations after previous Starship test flights. “The [Starship] vehicle experienced an anomaly during the landing phase of the flight resulting in loss of the vehicle,” an FAA spokesperson said. “The FAA will approve the final mishap investigation report and any corrective actions SpaceX must take before return to flight is authorized.”

The FAA noted that it will also work with SpaceX to identify reports of light debris in the area, saying that there have yet to be any reported injuries or damaged to public property.

What will really go on here is that an FAA official will observe closely as SpaceX conducts the investigation. That official might have some background in space engineering, but he or she will be completely unprepared to actually lead the investigation. Thus in the end the FAA will really only be able to rubber stamp SpaceX’s conclusions, though it might as all governments do, demand its own pound of flesh before issuing that stamp.

Up to now the FAA has tried very hard to work with the new commercial space companies, especially SpaceX, doing as little as it can to impede their progress. There are strong signs however that this might now change with the Democrats in control of the White House and Congress. If so, expect the FAA to cause SpaceX some grief during this investigation, grief that could significantly delay further test flights.

Congress taking aim at SpaceX and Starship testing

They’re coming for you next: The Democratic Party leaders on the House committee that normally does not overseer the FAA’s commercial space office have now raised their concerns about the recent test flights of SpaceX’s new rocket, Starship, in particular demanding an investigation into the flight of prototype #8, which the FAA claims had occurred despite one FAA issue.

The latest version of SpaceX’s FAA launch license for the Starship suborbital test flight program, issued March 12, allows those test flights to take place “only when an FAA Safety Inspector is present at SpaceX’s Boca Chica launch and landing site.”

The change stemmed from an investigation into SpaceX’s violation of that launch license during the SN8 test flight in December. SpaceX proceeded with the flight despite the FAA determining that the flight profile exceeded the maximum allowed risk to the uninvolved public for “far field blast overpressure” in the event of an explosion. While the SN8 vehicle exploded upon landing, there were no reports of damage outside of the SpaceX test site.

FAA directed SpaceX to investigate the incident, delaying the flight of the next Starship prototype, SN9. That investigation included “a comprehensive review of the company’s safety culture, operational decision-making and process discipline,” the FAA said in a Feb. 2 statement.

The FAA cleared SpaceX to proceed with launches, with SN9 and SN10 launching and landing — and both exploding upon or shortly after landing — on Feb. 2 and March 3, respectively. Neither caused any damage outside of the SpaceX test site.

The FAA’s response to SpaceX’s launch license violation, including the lack of any penalties beyond the investigation, prompted criticism from two key members of Congress. In a March 25 letter to FAA Administrator Steve Dickson, Reps. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.) and Rick Larsen (D-Wash.) sought to “register our concerns” with the incident. DeFazio is chair of the House Transportation Committee and Larsen the chair of its aviation subcommittee.

Much of these claims about the flight of prototype #8 however only appeared to become a significant concern after the Biden administration and the Democrats took power in January. Prior to that the FAA did not seem very troubled by that flight. In fact, the so called risk, “far field blast overpressure,” seems very contrived, especially since we have now had four Starship crashes on its landing pad, with no evident damage to even SpaceX’s own equipment nearby. Prior to January 20th the FAA was untroubled. After January 20th it suddenly became a deadly issue requiring stricter supervision by the government, though what that FAA inspector on sight can do or even know about the launch is baffling.

What these Democrats really don’t like is that someone is freely accomplishing something without their supervision or control. Like mobsters looking to exhort money, they are essentially telling SpaceX, “Nice business you got here. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it.”

With today’s fourth Starship crash, expect the Demorats in Congress now to swarm like flies over manure, all aimed at shutting down the most innovative new American space company in decades.

FAA bureaucrats block SpaceX Starship test flight

Capitalism in space? It is now confirmed that the test flight of SpaceX’s ninth prototype of its Starship rocket was scrubbed because of the FAA’s refusal to approve the license. To quote the FAA:

We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight.

Typically vague bureaucratic language. There is no word on why the government did this. The flight of Starship prototype #8 proved SpaceX has full control over its vehicle, to the point they could put it down right on target. Why the FAA should now suddenly get cold feet is inexplicable.

There is one difference between now and the December 9th flight of Starship prototype #8. Then the president was Republican Donald Trump, and the Senate was controlled by the Republicans. Now the president is Democrat Joe Biden, and both houses of Congress are in Democratic Party control. It would not surprise me in the least if some Biden officials called the FAA and demanded they impose stricter safety restrictions on SpaceX, and that they did so at the very last minute.

Or to put it another way, someone in the Biden administration essentially wanted to tell SpaceX, “Nice rocket company you got here. Sure would be a shame if something happened to it.”

Momentus forced to delay its first mission due to FAA bureaucrats

Capitalism in space? Momentus, aiming to provide satellite makers a tug that can move satellites to their preferred orbit, has delayed its first mission because the many bureaucrats in the federal government need more time to review the paperwork.

In a Jan. 4 statement, Momentus said the flight of its first Vigoride tug, which was to be part of the payloads on a Falcon 9 dedicated rideshare mission launching as soon as Jan. 14, will be delayed to later in the year because it was unable to get approval from the Federal Aviation Administration for the mission. “This move will allow for the additional time necessary to secure FAA approval of Momentus’ payloads, including completion of a standard interagency review,” the company said in a statement.

The company did not elaborate on that review, but part of the FAA commercial launch licensing process is a review of the payload that the agency describes as intended “to determine whether its launch would jeopardize public health and safety, safety of property, U.S. national security or foreign policy interests, or international obligations of the United States.” That process can include consultation with other government agencies.

In a Jan. 5 document filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission in the form of an interview, Fred Kennedy, president of Momentus, said there was no specific issue that was delaying that review. “The FAA did not express any specific concerns of its own, but rather indicated that more time was needed to complete its interagency review of Momentus’ payload,” he said. [emphasis mine]

The highlighted words reveal the truth. There is nothing wrong with the payload or its tasks. The problem is that several government agencies have not completed the paperwork, and so Momentus must wait. I imagine that there is a thick application sitting on some bureaucrat’s desk, requiring a signature, and that bureaucrat has been too busy collecting his or her paycheck at home because God forbid he or she might get the cororavirus by coming into work.

This is modern America. You don’t have the real freedom to do what you want. You must sit, twiddling your thumbs, while your betters in Washington decide whether they will allow you to do it. It doesn’t matter they know little or nothing about your goals. All that matters is that they are in charge, and can boss you around at their whim.

Regulators coming after SpaceX’s Boca Chica facility and Starship

Capitalism in space? New FAA documents suggest that government regulators are not happy with the rapid and spectacular development by SpaceX of its Super Heavy/Starship rocket at Boca Chica, Texas, and are eager to impose restrictions and delays.

The issue revolves around revisions to SpaceX’s original FAA approval for its work at Boca Chica because the company has switched from flying Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets to developing and flying Starship and Super Heavy. While the FAA has been cooperative in issuing the necessary revisions, other agencies have raised red flags.

But the most important document of the bunch is the written reevaluation signed by the FAA on May 22. The file spans 26 pages, was required for SpaceX to receive its suborbital launch license from the FAA on May 28, and incorporates concerns from state and federal environmental agencies.

In the reevaluation, the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department and the US Fish and Wildlife Service took issue with several aspects of SpaceX’s plans and ongoing activities. Those criticisms targeted the “fluid nature” of the company’s construction projects, excessive road closures to Boca Chica Beach (which Brownsville locals prize), around-the-clock work that may affect nocturnal threatened or endangered species, prototype explosions, and sprawling wildfires the company has triggered.

The FAA responded to each concern in the document, ultimately determining “there are no significant environmental changes, and that all pertinent conditions and requirements of the prior approval have been met or will be met” with SpaceX’s suborbital test-flight plans.

However, SpaceX does not yet have the FAA’s go-ahead to launch any Starships to orbit from Boca Chica.

In its replies to concerns noted by other agencies — some of which call for a new EIS [environmental impact statement], which could take years to complete (an eternity in Musk time) — the agency repeatedly noted it is working with SpaceX to draft an “environmental review” of those plans.

Should Joe Biden and the power-hungry and controlling Democrats take control of the executive branch of the federal government, expect the FAA’s desire to help SpaceX to quickly end.

FAA releases new commercial space licensing rules

The FAA today released its new streamlined commercial space licensing rules, aimed at simplifying the process for launch companies. According to the press release,

The new rule consolidates four regulatory parts and applies a single set of licensing and safety regulations for all types of vehicle operations. It also provides flexibility for operators to meet safety requirements. The rule improves efficiency by encouraging launch and reentry operators to suggest and implement design and operational solutions to meet the regulatory standards.

You can read the rule here [pdf].

Though it appears the FAA and the Trump administration truly wish to streamline this licensing process, it is not clear yet that these new rules do it. Some aspects, such as the rule that allows a single license to cover multiple launches, appear effective. The effect of others however remains murky. I would love to get feedback from anyone in commercial space directly impacted by these new rules. Are they as good as the FAA claims?

FAA issues Wallops Island launch license to Rocket Lab

Capitalism in space: The FAA has now issued a five year launch license to the smallsat rocket company Rocket Lab, allowing them to launch their Electron rocket from the company’s launch site on Wallops Island, Virginia.

The Launch Operator License allows for multiple launches of the Electron launch vehicle from Rocket Lab Launch Complex 2, eliminating the need to obtain individual, launch-specific licenses for every mission and helping to streamline the path to orbit and enable responsive space access from U.S. soil.

The company hopes to do its first launch from the U.S. before the year is out. It will then have two spaceports, allowing it to double its launch rate.

FAA gives Rocket Lab an umbrella 5-year launch license

Capitalism in space: The FAA has awarded the smallsat launch company Rocket Lab a 5-year launch license, allowing it to streamline its regulatory process so that it can up its launch pace.

Rocket Lab has received a new five-year Launch Operator License from the Federal Aviation Administration, which grants it permission to do multiple launches of its Electron rocket from its LC-1 launch site in New Zealand without having to seek individual clearance for each one. While not the only limiting factor, this should help Rocket Lab increase the frequency of its launches from LC-1, servicing more customers more often for commercial small satellite customers.

While Rocket Lab has yet to achieve its goal of launches every two weeks, or even one per month, this license should at least remove one obstacle.

Senate appropriations bill slams new commercial space regulations

In releasing its report yesterday on the Senate’s appropriations bill for transportation and housing, the Senate appropriations committee has demanded the FAA’s review and revise its proposed new regulations for commercial space, intended originally to streamline the red-tape but instead increased it. From their report:

Prior to drafting the rulemaking, the FAA convened an Aviation Rulemaking Committee [ARC] consisting of both traditional and emerging commercial space companies. However, the draft rule does not include relevant language approved by a majority of ARC members, and as a result, the proposed rule fails to implement a streamlined and performance based approach to regulating an industry whose continued growth and innovation is critical to national security and civilian space exploration. The draft rule creates unnecessary barriers to entry for new companies, may prevent many operators from achieving or maintaining flight rates and cost efficiencies to support new space applications and markets, and fails to address the application of the regulations to future space port locations. The Committee encourages the FAA to reconvene the Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements ARC and consider a supplemental NPRM prior to issuing a final rule in order to meet an artificial deadline. [emphasis mine]

It appears the FAA has agreed to review the regulations, as demanded.

I found it amusing that the entire appropriations bill is dubbed THUD, for “Transportation/Housing and Urban Development”. Though this acronym choice had nothing to do with the FAA’s space regulation debacle, it certainly seems most appropriate.

Washington’s spectacular effort to crush the American space effort

Three stories today illustrate once again the incompetence, idiocy, and inability of practically anyone in our federal government to get anything done sanely and efficiently and with success.

In the past half century that federal government has saddled the American people with a debt that is crushing. In that time it has also failed to do its job of properly enforcing the law to control the borders. It has spent trillions on social problems, only to have those social problems worsen exponentially.

I could go on. The problems imposed on American society by our failed ruling class in Washington since the 1960s is myriad. In the area of aerospace and space exploration, my specialty, the following three stories today alone demonstrate again that continuing track record, with no sign that anyone in Washington recognizes how bad a job they are doing.

First we have incompetence and idiocy by Congress. The first story outlines how our sainted lawmakers have mandated by law that the Europa Clipper mission to Jupiter’s moon must fly on NASA’s SLS rocket and “launch no later than 2023.”

This legal requirement, written into the appropriations bill, was imposed because the SLS project is being managed from Alabama, and Senator Richard Shelby (R-Alabama) wants that rocket to get some work to justify this pork to his state. The requirement was further pushed by former Texas Congressman John Culbertson, who has a special place in his heart for Europa, and has specifically imposed that mission on NASA.

Shelby’s demand is especially egregious and makes little sense. First, even after twenty years of effort, NASA will likely not have that rocket available in 2023. Second, the cost to use SLS is about $4 billion per launch (not the fake $1 billion number cited in the article). A Falcon Heavy rocket could do the job for $100 million, which would more than pay for the extra operating costs incurred because it will take the three more years to get to Jupiter.

To deal with this conflict, NASA is presently doing as much lobbying as it can to get Congress to change the time limit, or to allow them to fly the spacecraft on a Falcon Heavy. Not surprisingly, Congress is resisting, even though their position makes no sense and will likely cost the taxpayer billions unnecessarily while likely delaying or even impeding the mission itself.

The article as usual for the mainstream press is filled with misconceptions and errors that are all designed to make any change in this Congressional act seem a mistake. These mistakes were all fed to the reporter by the powers in and out of Congress who oppose changing things, and the reporter sadly was not informed enough to realize this.

Next we have the incompetent and power-hungry federal bureaucracy, as described in the second article.
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Camden submits spaceport application to FAA

Capitalism in space: Camden County in Georgia has submitted its application to the FAA to create a spaceport in that county.

It took them three years “to comply with the detailed regulatory requirements necessary.” Whether they get approval or attract customers remains to be seen. We do know that at least one smallsat rocket company, Vector, has shown a willingness to launch from their site.

Bill increases funding to FAA space office, adds other provisions

A bill about to be approved by Congress increases funding to the FAA Office of Commercial Transportation while also requiring that office to create several new regulatory positions.

The bill authorizes a significant increase in spending for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, from the $22.6 million it received in fiscal year 2018 to a little more than $33 million in 2019, growing to nearly $76 million in 2023. Appropriators, though, have not matched that authorized increase for 2019, with House and Senate versions of spending bills funding the FAA offering just under $25 million for AST.

The reauthorization bill includes several policy provisions associated with commercial spaceflight as well. One would require the FAA to designate an official within its air traffic organization to serve as the single point of contact for working with the head of AST on airspace issues associated with commercial launch activity.

Another provision establishes an “Office of Spaceports” within AST intended to support commercial licensing of launch sites and develop policies to promote infrastructure improvements at such facilities. It also requires AST to develop a report within one year of the bill’s enactment on spaceport policies, including recommendations on government actions to “support, encourage, promote, and facilitate greater investments in infrastructure at spaceports.” It directs the Government Accountability Office to prepare a separate report on ways to provide federal support for spaceports.

The bill creates a category of commercial spaceflight vehicles known as “space support vehicles” that cover parts of launch vehicles systems flying for other purposes, such as training or testing. Such vehicles would include the aircraft used by air-launch systems. The bill allows commercial flights of space support vehicles without the need for a full-fledged airworthiness certificate from the FAA.

It is hard to say if these provisions will help or hurt the growth of commercial space. It does appear that Congress’s goal was to help, but their methods always include more spending and greater bureaucracy.

The article also reviews a number of bills not yet agreed to by Congress that would address the regulation of Earth observation satellites as well as satellite servicing. It quotes a number of industry experts supporting the laws being proposed, but once again, it is unclear if those laws would help or hurt. My previous review of one of these laws presently working its way through the House was decidedly mixed. It will clarify and simplify many of the regulatory problems that presently exist, while creating more bureaucracy.

House passes law reforming commercial space licensing rules

The House yesterday passed a new law to reform the commercial space licensing rules.

Essentially, the bill shifts a majority of commercial space regulation to the Department of Commerce, and matches somewhat closely the recommendations being put forth by the Trump administration.

The bill appears to be almost identical to the version I analyzed in great detail in an op-ed for The Federalist last year. It has the same positives and negatives. While it definitely aims at simplifying the licensing process for space (abolishing such agencies as NOAA’s Office of Commercial Remote Sensing Regulatory Affairs that recently tried to claim it had the right to license all photograph of Earth from space.), it does not appear to completely make Commerce that “one-stop shop” for all licensing, allowing the FAA and FCC to retain their space licensing responsibilities. Moreover, it appears, as I noted in my op-ed, to avoid the more essential legal problems, such as the Outer Space Treaty, that hamper private space today and will hamper private space even more in the future.

Regardless, it does appear that the turf war over licensing between Commerce and the FAA is over. Though the law still must get through the Senate, it does appear that Commerce has mostly won. It will get the majority of this bureaucratic bauble. What that bureaucracy will do with it, however, is the real question.

FCC upset FCC not included in National Space Council

Turf war! The FCC commissioner today questioned the omission of an FCC representative on Trump’s reborn National Space Council.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said April 17 that the Federal Communications Commission “needs to coordinate more closely with other federal authorities” as it navigates through new space activities. “Right now the National Space Council is considering policy changes to help promote the growth of the commercial space industry,” she said. “Their efforts encompass everything from streamlining licenses to reforming export controls, protecting airwaves, to facilitating space activities … the FCC should have a seat at the table. It’s a glaring omission that this agency does not, because through our oversight of the airwaves and licensing of satellite services, we have an important role ensuring the viability of space for future generations.”

Rosenworcel noted that the National Space Council as revived by the Trump administration last year has a distinguished list of leaders, including the head of NASA, the secretaries of defense, transportation and homeland security, and others, calling it “an impressive list.” But “cutting the FCC out of this discussion is an unseemly mistake, and one that deserves a fix,” she said.

To translate: The FCC wants to keep its regulatory power over space operations, and by excluding them from the council Trump is threatening that power. This is unacceptable!

If the Trump administration is truly serious about streamlining the space regulatory bureaucracy, we should hear more complaints like this in the coming months, from the FAA, NASA, the State Department, and other agencies. Normally such government streamlining efforts only make things worse, because all the threatened government agencies chime in with complaints like this. The result is that nothing gets streamlined. Instead, the effort merely adds another layer of bureaucracy, as illustrated by my previous post.

George Nield of FAA space office is retiring

George Nield, who has been the associate administrator for Commercial Space Transportation at the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), is going to retire at the end of March.

Nield has held the position for the past 15 years, and has been a big supporter of private commercial space. While Congress has passed laws during this time period that gave his office lots of regulatory power and thus the ability to lord it over these new companies, Nield instead worked with them so that their efforts would not be hampered by the government. The result has been the birth of a thriving competitive and innovative private launch industry.

I fear what will happen with the next person to hold this position. History tells us that bureaucracies always expand their power with every opportunity, with such expansions often instigated by the arrival of new bureaucrats eager to take advantage of the regulations to build themselves an empire.

FAA submits its red tape recommendations to National Space Council

As requested by Vice-President Mike Pence during the first meeting of the National Space Council, the FAA has now submitted its recommendations for streamlining the launch licensing process.

“We came up with our vision for a 21st century licensing process,” [George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation] said. That process, he said, could include licenses that cover different versions of a family of vehicles, launching from different sites on different missions, “on the same piece of paper.” Nield said other elements of that vision include “performance-based” regulations that don’t limit companies on how they can achieve a certain requirement, as well as ways to accelerate the license review process, which can take up to 180 days once a completed application is submitted.

Some of those changes, Nield said, may take longer to carry our, particularly when they involve issues like environmental reviews. He said the FAA is looking at other near-term streamlining approaches, such as the use of a mechanism called “safety approvals” that provides pre-approval of subsystems or processes — and potentially entire launch vehicles — to speed the license review process.

Nield also put in a request for additional staff for his office, which currently has about 100 people. “If we had some additional folks that could look at fixing the process rather than just having everybody having their head down cranking out these licenses, then we could make a significant improvement” in the license review process, he said. [emphasis mine]

While I do think Nield is sincere about reducing regulation, and has generally been a positive force in his job in helping the new commercial launch business, he is still a bureaucrat. The whole point here is to encourage the policy-makers to give his office the job of regulating space, so that Nield’s responsibilities grow.

Federal bureaucracy prevents satellite launch

We’re here to help you! A suite of 8 private commercial cubesats that the Air Force had agreed to launch as secondary payloads on the August 26 launch of a Minotaur rocket were blocked from launch by FAA bureaucracy.

The “interagency partner” that appeared to raise objections was the Federal Aviation Administration, which issued the launch license for the mission. “The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) did not approve Orbital ATK’s request for a license modification to include commercial cubesats on the upcoming ORS-5 launch mission,” Guthrie said. “As a result, Orbital ATK decided not to include commercial cubesats on the launch.”

Asked if the FAA placed any conditions or restrictions on the ORS-5 mission launched on the Minotaur 4, agency spokesman Hank Price said the FAA issued Orbital ATK a license Feb. 10 to launch government payloads on the Minotaur 4 from Cape Canaveral. The launch license contains any and all conditions on the license, Price said, and the FAA does not comment on the “existence or status of launch license applications or modifications until the FAA makes a final decision regarding those requests.”

Industry sources believe the FAA never formally rejected a proposed license modification for the cubesats because it did not go through the official process, but it was informally clear that the agency would have rejected such a modification had it been formally submitted.

Spire officials are trying to figure out why there was any issue at all about commercial cubesats on this launch. “If Spire chose this launch in the place of another commercial offering, I would understand the industry’s concern about fair competition,” Barna said. “But no existing U.S. launch company or new entrant was offering a similar launch. The fundamental intent of the policy is to keep competition fair, and competition just wasn’t a factor here.”

Spire’s problems here demonstrates the difficulties smallsat companies have getting their satellites in orbit, which explains the emergence of a new smallsat rocket industry. The company’s difficulties also illustrates why the launch industry should always be opposed to giving too much regulatory power to government. In this case it really appears that the launch license was denied merely because the bureaucrats involved with approving it at the FAA simply didn’t want to bother dealing with it.

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