SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic demand FAA improvements

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket carrying the Psyche spacecraft lifts off from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 13, 2023.

Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images

As the pace of rocket launches accelerates and competition from China increases, executives from leading U.S. space companies called on senators on Wednesday to improve the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory and licensing processes.

“We are at a tipping point, with incredible innovations in commercial space travel. The importance is particularly true given strategic competition from state actors such as China,” said Bill Gerstenmaier, vice president of construction and flight reliability at SpaceX, during his testimony. “SpaceX has a contract with NASA to use Starship to put American astronauts on the moon off China.”

The Senate Space and Science Subcommittee heard from three company representatives from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galacticand two industry experts.

Gerstenmaier emphasized that the FAA’s commercial space agency requires “at least twice as many resources as it does today” to authorize rocket launches. While acknowledging that the FAA is “critical to enabling safe space transportation,” Gerstenmaier added that the industry is “at a breaking point.”

“The FAA has neither the resources nor the flexibility to implement its regulatory obligations,” Gerstenmaier said.

Although the hearing focused largely on the FAA’s role in the space industry, Senate committee and FAA spokespeople confirmed that the regulator was not invited to testify.

“Keeping pace with industry demand is a priority and is important for several reasons, including meeting our national security and civilian exploration needs. We are working diligently to attract, hire and retain additional personnel,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC in a statement.

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The statements of the other four panelists largely reflected SpaceX’s position on the need to strengthen the FAA’s ranks and speed up the process of approving rocket launches. Phil Joyce, senior vice president of New Shepard at Blue Origin, said the FAA is “struggling to keep up with the industry” and needs more funding to handle the increase in launches.

Likewise, industry expert Caryn Schenewerk, a former executive at SpaceX and Relativity Space, said the FAA’s recent changes have “not yet streamlined license reviews” and have instead “proved more cumbersome and costly.”

Wayne Monteith — a retired Air Force brigadier general who also headed the FAA’s space office — said Congress should consider consolidating space regulations.

“I believe a more efficient, one-stop-shop approach to authorizing and licensing space activities is necessary,” Monteith said.

What about private manned space flights?

Crew members from Italy hug each other after returning from the first commercial flight of Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane to the edge of space at the Spaceport America facility in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, U.S., June 29, 2023.

Jose Luis Gonzalez | Reuters

But while companies want the FAA to move faster in licensing rocket launches for unmanned missions, which most often carry satellites, the situation is different for manned space flights.

Executives asked senators to extend a deadline “learning time” As a result, FAA regulation is largely limited to protecting the public.

That deadline is set to expire in January, but witnesses agreed Wednesday that the FAA should not impose new regulations on flying humans into space.

“The commercial human spaceflight industry is relatively new. Until recently, human spaceflight has been primarily the domain of governments, and human access to space has been largely reserved for members of the national astronaut corps,” said Sirisha Bandla, astronaut and Virgin Galactic Vice President of Government Affairs and Research.

“There are currently only three companies launching humans into space, and it would be premature at this point to base occupant safety regulations on this extremely small amount of data,” Bandla added in her statement.

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