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FAA begins use of system to reduce impact of launches on airspace

Falcon 9 Transporter-2 launch

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration has started to use a new tool intended to better integrate commercial launches and reentries into the National Airspace System, reducing the disruptions those events have on aviation.

The FAA announced July 8 that it formally started use of the Space Data Integrator (SDI) with the June 30 launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral on the Transporter-2 rideshare mission. It will be used again when the CRS-22 cargo Dragon spacecraft splashes down off the Florida cost late July 9.

SDI, under development by the FAA for several years, automates the transfer of data about launches and reentries to air traffic controllers so they have up-to-date information on the progress of those activities, including any anomalies that might create debris or other aviation hazards. That can allow controllers to more efficiently manage air traffic around those closures.

“The overall impact and the benefit is reducing the amount of time it takes to close or reopen airspace,” Tim Arel, deputy chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization, said of the SDI in a call with reporters.

The intent is to allow quicker reopening of airspace once a launch or reentry has safely transited airspace. “We’re able to more dynamically adjust those closures,” he said. “What it means is that those flights moved out of the way to accommodate a safe operation of that space mission will be able to more quickly get back on to their normal flight path, or maybe even get some shortcuts.”

Arel said that other measures it had been taking for airspace closures already reduced the average length from more than four hours to more than two hours. “We know SDI will help us open the airspace even quicker,” he said, but didn’t offer an estimate of how much of an improvement it will provide.

The growing cadence of commercial launches in recent years — there have been 33 licensed launches so far in 2021, compared to 11 in all of 2016 — prompted pushback from the aviation industry given the conventional approach to closing large amounts of airspace for each launch. A breaking point was the first Falcon Heavy launch in February 2018 that closed airspace off the Florida coast for hours on a weekday afternoon, affecting hundreds of flights in a busy corridor.

The aviation and commercial spaceflight industries have been working together more closely together since then, including pushing for tools like SDI that have the potential to reduce the size and duration of airspace closures. However, the long development cycle for SDI prompted congressional criticism at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee.

At the hearing, Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, pressed the FAA on the slow progress on SDI, stating he was opposed to delaying airline flights “because some millionaire or billionaire is going to experience 15 minutes of weightlessness.”

At the hearing, Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the FAA, said operational tests of SDI would begin soon, although there wasn’t a timeline for full integration of SDI. Work on it has accelerated, he said, since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization (ATO).

“We have seen tremendous, tremendous progress in just the last two years as Teri Bristol and the ATO has taken this responsibility on with our technical help,” he said in the call with reporters.

Currently, participation in the SDI is voluntary. Besides SpaceX, which started cooperating with the FAA on the SDI in 2016, others include Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Alaska Aerospace Corporation, which operates the launch site on Kodiak Island, Alaska. Monteith didn’t give a schedule for bringing other companies into the system, but emphasized the importance of having an automated system like SDI to improve safety.

There are limits, though, to what tools like SDI can do to improve management of launches in the National Airspace System. On June 29, the first Transporter-2 launch attempt was scrubbed shortly after a helicopter entered restricted airspace near the pad, halting the countdown seconds before liftoff. “Unfortunately, launch is called off for today, as an aircraft entered the ‘keep out zone’, which is unreasonably gigantic,” Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, tweeted shortly after the scrub. “There is simply no way that humanity can become a spacefaring civilization without major regulatory reform. The current regulatory system is broken.”

Arel said that SDI did not play a factor in the Transporter-2 scrub, since the airspace violation took place before launch. “It was ready to be used for the first attempt and was not needed,” he said.

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Falcon 9 launch scrub highlights airspace integration problems

Falcon 9 Transporter-2

WASHINGTON — A SpaceX launch scrubbed in the final seconds of its countdown when an aircraft violated restricted airspace June 29 has aligned both the launch industry and the airline industry in their criticism of the Federal Aviation Administration.

SpaceX was preparing to launch a Falcon 9 from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida at 2:56 p.m. Eastern. The Transporter-2 mission is carrying 88 satellites on SpaceX’s second dedicated smallsat rideshare missions, supporting customers ranging from NASA and the Pentagon’s Space Development Agency to several companies developing remote sensing and communications constellations.

However, the countdown was stopped 11 seconds before liftoff because of a “fouled range,” or range violation of some kind. While SpaceX had nearly a one-hour launch window for this mission, the company scrubbed the launch minutes later because it would not have time to prepare the vehicle for another launch attempt. The launch has been tentatively rescheduled for the same time June 30.

SpaceX did not disclose what caused the range violation and subsequent scrub, although the host of the company’s webcast speculated it could be an aircraft. Elon Musk, founder and chief executive of SpaceX, confirmed that in a tweet minutes after the scrub.

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

Musk has expressed similar criticisms of the FAA’s “broken” regulatory system in the past, but that focused on the launch licensing process rather than airspace restrictions. Musk’s latest criticism mirrors that from the commercial aviation industry, which for years has complained that the size and duration of airspace restrictions for launches cause flight delays and disrupt airline schedules.

The issue came up most recently at a June 16 hearing of the House Transportation Committee’s aviation subcommittee, which revisited several issues regarding the FAA’s oversight of commercial space transportation.

“FAA has also made progress in developing procedures, technologies and industry coordinations to reduce inefficiencies in safely integrating commercial space users into the National Airspace System,” said Heather Krause, director of physical infrastructure at the Government Accountability Office, in testimony at the hearing. “These efforts are promising, but full and efficient integration of all users of the National Airspace System is years away and will require continued work and focus.”

Rep. Rick Larsen (D-Wash.), chair of the subcommittee, asked if the FAA was making sufficient progress toward that goal. Krause responded that the FAA had taken “a number of steps” since a 2019 review that highlighted inefficiencies. “It is a complex issue to work through, and technologies and systems need to be further developed so that there’s better data to be able to assess risk.”

Rep. Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), chair of the full committee, criticized the FAA for slow progress in one specific tool, called the Space Data Integrator, which is intended to provide information on launch activities more quickly to air traffic controllers and pilots, reducing the size and duration of airspace restrictions. He asked Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, about the timeline for development of the tool, noting it had been discussed at a hearing five years ago.

Monteith responded that progress had accelerated on the Space Data Integrator since the project was handed over to Teri Bristol, chief operating officer of the FAA’s Air Traffic Organization. “We expect in the next few months to have the first operational tests of it,” he said. “We will be taking live data and ingesting it into our system with the goal of reducing the airspace that must be segregated and really integrate commercial space into the system,” he said.

One of the critics of current approaches to restrict airspace for launches has been the Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA). At the hearing, Capt. Joe Depete, president of ALPA, called for “collaboration by the aviation and aerospace sectors” to develop an airspace integration strategy.

“We agree that there is a better way,” DePete tweeted in response to Musk after the launch scrub, offering to work with SpaceX, the FAA and others “to support the safe integration of all national airspace users.”

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SpaceX aiming for July for Starship orbital launch despite regulatory reviews

WASHINGTON — SpaceX President Gwynne Shotwell says the company is “shooting for July” for the first orbital launch of the company’s Starship vehicle despite lacking the regulatory approvals needed for such a launch.

Speaking at the National Space Society’s International Space Development Conference (ISDC) June 25, Shotwell said the company was pressing ahead with plans for an orbital flight involving the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site.

“We are headed for our first orbital attempt in the not-too-distant future. We’re shooting for July,” she said. “I am hoping we make it, but we all know this is difficult. We are really on the cusp of flying that system, or at least attempting the first orbital flight of that system, in the very near term.”

SpaceX last flew a Starship prototype May 5, with the SN15 vehicle flying to an altitude of 10 kilometers before making a successful landing, a milestone that had eluded four previous prototypes in tests between December 2020 and March 2021. While SpaceX originally appeared to be planning a second suborbital flight of that vehicle, it instead moved the vehicle from the launch pad. Another Starship prototype, SN16, has remained at the production site.

SpaceX has since turned its attention to preparing for the first orbital test flight. In a filing with the Federal Communications Commission May 13, SpaceX outlined the flight plan for the mission, starting with liftoff off from Boca Chica. The Super Heavy booster would land in the Gulf of Mexico off the coast from Boca Chica, while Starship would go into orbit but reenter after less than one orbit, splashing down 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai.

That license application stated the flight would take place during a six-month period beginning June 20. However, the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation has not yet issued a launch license for Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The company’s existing license covers only suborbital flights of Starship.

As a part of the licensing process, the FAA is performing an environmental review of launches from Boca Chica. The agency said in November that the original environmental impact statement for the site, prepared in 2014 when SpaceX was contemplating launching Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets, was not applicable to the far larger Starship/Super Heavy vehicles. Some environmental groups had criticized allowing SpaceX to launch Starship vehicles from Boca Chica using the original environmental study.

That assessment must be completed before the FAA can issue a license to SpaceX for Starship/Super Heavy flights. The assessment could conclude that such launches would have no significant impact, or that some mitigation measures are needed to allow such launches. It could also conclude that a more detailed environmental impact statement would be required, delaying a decision on the license.

The FAA has not provided an update on the status of the environmental assessment, which would include publication of a draft version for public comment before a final version. It is unlikely that process could be done in time to support a launch in the near future.

Shotwell made no mention of the licensing and environmental review process in her brief comments at ISDC, where she was accepting an award from the organization. Later in her remarks, she said the orbital launch attempt was the next big test for Starship. “I never want to predict dates because we’ll still in development, but very soon,” she said.

Shotwell said she was also “very excited” about the progress on the Starlink program. She said SpaceX will have full global coverage once all the satellites launched to date reach their operational orbits. SpaceX launched the most recent batch of Starlink satellites May 26.

“Roughly six or so weeks from now we will have full global continuous coverage with the Starlink constellation, which should really help people who are un- or under-served to get broadband internet,” she said.

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SpaceX outlines first orbital Starship test flight

WASHINGTON — SpaceX has disclosed details for the first orbital test flight of its next-generation Starship launch system, but the company is still far short of the regulatory approvals needed for the mission.

SpaceX filed an application with the Federal Communications Commission May 13 for special temporary authority for communications required to support a Starship test launch from the company’s Boca Chica, Texas, test site. The license would cover communications for what the company called an “experimental orbital demo and recovery test of the Starship test vehicle” launching from Boca Chica.

In an attachment to the application, SpaceX provided the first details about what it calls “Starship Orbital – First Flight.” The mission would involve a launch of the overall Starship vehicle, including the Super Heavy booster and Starship upper stage, from Boca Chica.

“SpaceX intends to collect as much data as possible during flight to quantify entry dynamics and better understand what the vehicle experiences in a flight regime that is extremely difficult to accurately predict or replicate computationally,” the company said in the application. “This data will anchor any changes in vehicle design or [concept of operations] after the first flight and build better models for us to use in our internal simulations.”

As outlined in the application, the Super Heavy booster will shut down 169 seconds after liftoff, separating from the Starship upper stage two seconds later. Super Heavy will fly back not to Boca Chica, but instead to a location 32 kilometers offshore in the Gulf of Mexico, touching down 495 seconds after liftoff. The application didn’t state if the booster would land on a platform, such as an oil rig SpaceX is converting for such uses, or splash down into the ocean.

Starship, which ignites its engines five seconds after stage separation, will shut down its engines 521 seconds after liftoff, having achieved orbit. The vehicle, though, will complete less than one full orbit before entering and landing in the Pacific Ocean 100 kilometers northwest of the Hawaiian island of Kauai approximately 90 minutes after liftoff.

The application notes that SpaceX will perform a “powered, targeted landing” but not on any kind of ship. Instead, it will make “a soft ocean landing.” SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk said in a tweet that the company is planning an ocean landing to avoid hazards should the vehicle not survive reentry. “We need to make sure ship won’t break up on reentry, hence deorbit over Pacific,” he wrote.

The application did not specify when the company expects to perform this launch, beyond a six-month “requested period of operation” that starts June 20.

SpaceX can’t carry out the launch, though, until it receives a license from the Federal Aviation Administration’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation. That license will depend on the status of an ongoing environmental assessment of Starship/Super Heavy launch operations from Boca Chica, which fall outside the scope of the original environmental impact statement prepared when SpaceX planned to use the site for its Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy vehicles.

That assessment is ongoing, and the FAA has not given schedule for completing it. The FAA states on its website that the public will be given an opportunity comment on the draft assessment, which will recommend whether the FAA needs to then prepare a more detailed environmental impact statement. The FAA could otherwise determine there would be no significant impact to the environment from Starship/Super Heavy launches, or that those impacts can be mitigated with appropriate measures, the agency explained in a set of frequently asked questions about the ongoing environmental review.

“SpaceX must meet all licensing requirements before Starship/Super Heavy can launch,” an FAA spokesman noted May 14.

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Congress raises concerns about FAA’s handling of Starship launch license violation

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX gears up for another test flight of a Starship prototype, the Federal Aviation Administration is facing new scrutiny from Congress for how it handled SpaceX’s violation of its launch license on an earlier test flight.

SpaceX had planned to launch its SN11 Starship vehicle March 29 from its Boca Chica, Texas, test site. That flight will be similar to those of previous Starship prototypes, going to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing on a nearby pad.

However, SpaceX called off the March 29 launch attempt because an FAA inspector could not arrive to observe the flight during a five-hour window. “FAA inspector unable to reach Starbase in time for launch today,” tweeted Elon Musk, chief executive of SpaceX, using the proposed new name for the Boca Chica site. “Postponed to no earlier than tomorrow.”

The requirement for an FAA presence on site at the test site is new for the SN11 launch. 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.

“Given the high-risk nature of the industry, we are disappointed that the FAA declined to conduct an independent review of the event and, to the best of our knowledge, has not pursued any form of enforcement action,” they wrote after summarizing the incident and investigation.

In the letter, DeFazio and Larsen called on the FAA to “resist any potential undue influence on launch safety decision-making” by taking “all the time and actions necessary” to evaluate proposed launches. They also urged the FAA to implement “a strict policy to deal with violations of FAA launch and reentry licenses” that includes civil penalties, and to evaluate its current approach to safety oversight and enforcement for commercial space activities.

“While the commercial space transportation sector is crucial to our Nation’s future, at no point should a commercial space launch jeopardize public safety,” they wrote.

The FAA, asked March 29 about the letter, said only that the agency “is in receipt of the letter and will respond directly to the committee.”

While the House Transportation Committee’s oversight includes the FAA, traditionally that has excluded the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is in the jurisdiction of the House Science Committee. The transportation committee, though, has shown a growing interest in commercial space transportation, including several hearings in recent years that have examined the industry, including how the growing number of launches and spaceports affects commercial aviation.

In a speech at the March 23 meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Dickson indirectly referred to the SN8 incident. “We can’t take all the dangers out of commercial space transportation, but I also know that we have to make it as safe as humanly possible,” he said. “Sometimes, that means we have to set the parking brake and make sure that we’re all aligned.”

Dickson said there have been six commercial launch mishaps since the beginning of the 2021 fiscal year. That includes the three Starship test flights that ended in explosion upon or shortly after landing, as well as a failed Falcon 9 landing at sea during an otherwise successful launch Feb. 15. The other two are the launch of Astra’s Rocket 3.2 in December that just missed reaching orbit and an aborted test flight of Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo suborbital spaceplane, also in December.

“When mishaps do happen, which is not uncommon in a fast-moving new field, they should be successful failures, meaning that the failure was consistent with, in this case, the FAA’s analysis that showed that the public would be kept safe,” Dickson said.

“So far, there have been six mishaps this fiscal year, some that ended in spectacular fireballs and went viral on social media,” he said, “but all six of these were successful failures, because we were able to protect public safety.”

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Eastern Range looks for ways to support additional launches

Falcon 9 double launch

WASHINGTON — As launch activity grows on the Eastern Range in Florida, companies and government agencies are looking at ways to add capacity, largely through incremental improvements.

In a panel discussion at the 47th Spaceport Summit Feb. 23, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Purdy Jr., commander of the 45th Space Wing and director of the Eastern Range, said the range supported 32 launches in the last 12 months. Those launches came from 55 launch attempts that “went to countdown.”

However, there were 297 requested launch opportunities over that period, of which the range approved 225. “Each one of those are obviously a lot of work and a lot of coordination with a lot of partners,” he said. “There’s a lot of work that goes on just get those launch dates, and that’s going to keep increasing as we get to those expected launch rates in the future.”

Those expected launch rates he referred to came from a study by The Aerospace Corporation that projected a surge in commercial launch activity from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station and neighboring Kennedy Space Center in the next few years. “We’re getting up to over 60 launches a year,” said Bob Cabana, director of KSC.

One innovation is the adoption of autonomous flight safety systems on launch vehicles that eliminate the need for tracking and communications system that can take days to reconfigure from one launch attempt to the next. “We were able to go from locking down the range for 72 to 96 hours to being able to support multiple launches in a single day,” said Wayne Monteith, associate administrator for commercial space transportation at the Federal Aviation Administration and a former commander of the 45th Space Wing.

SpaceX uses autonomous flight safety systems for its Falcon 9 launches, which has allowed it to closely schedule launches. The company has, on two occasions, attempted two Falcon 9 launches from Space Launch Complex 40 and Launch Complex 39A on the same day, but weather or technical issues with the rocket prevented both launches from taking place.

“We came very close” to two launches in one day, said Hans Koenigsmann, senior adviser for build and flight reliability at SpaceX, including an attempt in February where two launches were scheduled for less than four and a half hours apart. “This will happen in the near future, that we launch two vehicles from two pads on the same day. It will only increase from there.”

Purdy said the range has set an October 2025 deadline for other vehicle operators to adopt autonomous flight safety systems. That transition will free up an “not insignificant amount of personnel and equipment” currently used for tracking launches.

Other changes are more incremental. Both the Eastern Range and launch companies are studying weather requirements, looking for minor changes that decrease the probability that conditions such as lightning scrub a launch.

“We’ve got multiple projects underway to keep nibbling away at the weather question,” said Purdy, such as reducing the radius around a launch site for lightning from five miles to four miles.

“We’re investing on the technical infrastructure to make the rocket more robust against lightning,” said Scott Henderson, vice president of test and flight operations and Florida site director for Blue Origin. “The idea is that you can launch a rocket any time an airplane is taking off from Orlando’s airport.”

More complex launches, though, are introducing more weather constraints. Koenigsmann said many SpaceX launches have instantaneous launch windows, with no margin for error in the event of bad weather. Crewed launches also require good weather along the trajectory to orbit in the event of an abort, and most SpaceX launches involve a booster landing at sea where weather can be an issue.

Purdy said his weather team is working with SpaceX and others planning ocean landings to better understand weather conditions at sea. That’s included incorporating climatology data along the Eastern Seaboard to see what areas are more likely to have favorable wind and sea state conditions for a landing.

Other tweaks involve procedures. Purdy said each of the 297 requests for a launch date the range received in the last year took “multiple hours” to process. “The range adjudication process is one of our biggest pain points right now,” he said. “An automation process in that people-centric approach is something we’re trying to work cooperatively with the FAA and our other mission partners on.”

The FAA’s commercial space transportation office has taken steps to support higher launch rates through more streamlined regulations, released last fall and scheduled to formally go into effect later this month. That’s needed, Monteith said, because the number of licensed launches is growing far faster than the number of people in his office. “If we don’t plan ahead and adapt, we will become the limiting factor to the growth and success of the U.S. commercial space industry,” he said.

Orbital launches on the Eastern Range are today performed primarily by two companies, SpaceX and United Launch Alliance. Several more companies, though, are either building new launch facilities or have announced plans to launch from Cape Canaveral, including Blue Origin, Firefly Aerospace and Relativity. That will make launch coordination more complicated.

Henderson noted that Blue Origin’s Launch Complex 36, which will host New Glenn launches starting no earlier than late 2022, is near SpaceX’s Landing Zone 1, where some Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy boosters land. Blue Origin has to clear LC-36 during a SpaceX landing, while SpaceX will have to clear Landing Zone 1 during a New Glenn launch.

“As we add more launch providers, that’s going to be more dynamic,” he said. “We’re going to have to figure out a way to do that.”

Koenigsmann was not concerned. “I just don’t see anybody else doing that level of launches right now” compared to SpaceX, he said, expressing optimism that SpaceX and others can find solutions to any future scheduling issues. “After all, we land on ships, right? How hard can that be.”

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SpaceX violated launch license in Starship SN8 launch

Starship SN8 liftoff

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration said that SpaceX violated the conditions of a launch license for its Starship vehicle during a launch in December, prompting an investigation that delayed tests of another vehicle.

In a Feb. 2 statement, the FAA said that SpaceX had requested a waiver to its FAA license for suborbital test flights of its Starship vehicle before the Dec. 9 flight of the Starship SN8 vehicle. That waiver, the FAA said, would have allowed SpaceX to “exceed the maximum public risk allowed by federal safety regulations.”

The FAA denied the request, but SpaceX went ahead with the launch. SpaceX considered the flight successful, although the vehicle exploded upon landing. No injuries or third-party damage was reported during the flight, but the FAA determined that SpaceX violated the conditions of its license by proceeding without the waiver.

“As a result of this non-compliance, the FAA required SpaceX to conduct an investigation of the incident,” the agency stated. “All testing that could affect public safety at the Boca Chica, Texas, launch site was suspended until the investigation was completed and the FAA approved the company’s corrective actions to protect public safety.”

SpaceX had hoped to launch its next Starship prototype, SN9, on a similar suborbital flight Jan. 28, but that launch was postponed. The FAA said at the time it was still evaluating unspecified modifications to its launch license. “We will approve the modification only after we are satisfied that SpaceX has taken the necessary steps to comply with regulatory requirements,” the agency said in a Jan. 29 statement.

The FAA approved that modification late Feb. 1, concluding that “SpaceX complies with all safety and related federal regulations and is authorized to conduct Starship SN9 flight operations in accordance with its launch license.” It did not elaborate on any modifications or waivers to that license. SpaceX did not respond to questions about the issue.

FAA regulations require companies with reusable launch vehicle licenses, like SpaceX’s Starship, to meet an “expected casualty” limit for the uninvolved public of no more than 0.0001 per launch, or one casualty per 10,000 launches. The risk to any one individual cannot exceed one in one million.

Many in the space industry were surprised that SpaceX would violate the conditions of a launch contract. “If a licensee violates the terms of their launch license, they did so knowing that an uninvolved member of the public could have been hurt or killed. That is not exaggeration. They took a calculated risk with your life and property,” said Jared Zambrano-Stout, a former deputy chief of staff and senior adviser with the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which handles launch licensing.

In a series of tweets Feb. 2, he argued that SpaceX violating its license with little or no penalty could have lasting ramifications for the industry. “If the FAA does not enforce their launch licenses, it will damage the long-term viability of the launch industry and damage their credibility with Congress. It is possible that the industry could suffer significant regulatory burdens enforced by Congress to ensure safety.”

The FAA is allowing SpaceX to proceed with the Starship SN9 launch, which is expected no earlier than Feb. 2 from Boca Chica.

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FAA reviews delay SpaceX Starship test

Starship SN8 in flight

WASHINGTON — A test flight of SpaceX’s Starship launch vehicle is on hold as the company awaits approval from the Federal Aviation Administration, a delay that has publicly aggravated the company’s chief executive.

SpaceX had planned to perform a suborbital flight of its Starship SN9 vehicle at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site Jan. 28. The vehicle would have made a flight similar to that by the SN8 vehicle Dec. 9, this time going to an altitude of 10 kilometers before landing back at Boca Chica.

However, temporary flight restrictions (TFRs) closing airspace around the test site were unexpectedly lifted around the middle of the day, even as SpaceX was preparing the vehicle for the flight. A source familiar with the discussions between the FAA and SpaceX said that the agency requested additional information about the vehicle and flight plan before giving final approval.

SpaceX Chief Executive Elon Musk berated the FAA for the delay. “Unlike its aircraft division, which is fine, the FAA space division has a fundamentally broken regulatory structure,” he tweeted. “Their rules are meant for a handful of expendable launches per year from a few government facilities. Under those rules, humanity will never get to Mars.”

The company proceeded with launch preparations Jan. 28, leaving some to wonder if the company might perform a launch without a TFR in place or other FAA approvals. That turned out to be a wet dress rehearsal, with the vehicle fueled but the countdown halted before engine ignition.

A second launch attempt Jan. 29 did not get nearly as far. An FAA air traffic advisory early in the day stated that the launch had been canceled, although the TFR remained in place. By midmorning, though, SpaceX said it was now targeting no earlier than Feb. 1 for the SN9 launch.

Neither SpaceX nor FAA have disclosed additional details about the issue preventing FAA approval for the launch. “We will continue working with SpaceX to resolve outstanding safety issues before we approve the next test flight,” FAA spokesperson Steven Kuhn told SpaceNews Jan. 29.

The conflict between the FAA and SpaceX stands in contrast to the FAA’s public stance of working constructively with industry. That has included a streamlining of launch and reentry regulations the FAA concluded last fall. Those new regulations take effect 90 days after their official publication in the Federal Register Dec. 10.

At an appearance Jan. 26 at a space investment webinar by IPO Edge, Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said he understood the industry’s desire to move quickly. “As soon as that rocket’s ready to go and that payload’s ready to go, they want to go. So that we don’t become an impediment to the success of U.S. companies, we, as the primary regulator in this industry, have to be ready as well.”

Monteith said he was willing to talk directly with launch company executives if there were regulatory issues. “CEOs and presidents of companies also have my direct line. They can reach out to me directly if our teams are miscommunicating or not communicating well with each other,” he said. Issues that might take staff “weeks or months” to resolve, he said, “we can sometimes fix in a single phone call.”

“While nobody likes to be regulated, it’s important,” he said. “For one, it keeps everyone safe, and number two, it provides that stable environment for investors.”

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SpaceX ready for Starship suborbital flight as FAA begins new environmental study

Boca Chica

WASHINGTON — As SpaceX prepares for the first high-altitude test flight of its Starship reusable launch vehicle, the Federal Aviation Administration is starting a new environmental review required for the company’s future launch vehicle plans.

SpaceX performed a brief static-fire test of its Starship SN8 prototype Nov. 24 at its Boca Chica, Texas, test site. After the test, company founder and chief executive declared on Twitter that the vehicle was now ready for a suborbital flight to an altitude of 15 kilometers.

“Good Starship SN8 static fire! Aiming for first 15km / ~50k ft altitude flight next week,” he tweeted. “Goals are to test 3 engine ascent, body flaps, transition from main to header tanks & landing flip.”

That flight will be the first time that a Starship vehicle has flown more than a short distance off the pad at Boca Chica. Two earlier Starship prototypes, SN5 and SN6, each performed brief “hop” tests to altitudes of no more than about 150 meters in August and September, respectively. An earlier prototype, dubbed “Starhopper,” made a similar flight in August 2019.

Musk admitted the upcoming flight was risky, giving it “maybe 1/3 chance” of being successful. However, he added, two more prototypes, SN9 and SN10, are in development.

While Starship will take off and land on its own, it is intended to be the upper stage of a launch system that features a much larger booster called Super Heavy that SpaceX is also developing at Boca Chica. However, before Super Heavy can launch from the site, SpaceX needs a new launch license from the FAA.

As part of that launch licensing effort, the FAA announced Nov. 23 that it was undertaking an environmental review of Starship/Super Heavy launches from Boca Chica. The agency said that the new vehicle “falls outside of the scope of the existing final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and Record of Decision for the launch site and requires additional environmental review” under federal law.

FAA completed an EIS for the Boca Chica site in June 2014 when SpaceX was proposing to build a launch site there for Falcon 9 and Falcon Heavy rockets. Instead, the company decided to use Boca Chica as a test site, and ultimately launch site, for what would become the Starship system.

Environmental organizations criticized the FAA for allowing SpaceX to change its plans for Boca Chica without revising the EIS. “They went from proposing a few launches per year of an already field-tested rocket to ongoing experimentation of untested technology without doing the studies that would ensure environmental protection and public safety and without giving the local community a chance to have a say,” said Jim Chapman, president of Friends of the Wildlife Corridor, a local environmental group.

Chapman spoke in June, shortly after another Starship prototype, SN4, exploded after a static-fire test. Three other Starship prototypes were destroyed in earlier pressurization tests dating back to November 2019.

The FAA, though, determined that Starship tests, including suborbital flights, fit within the scope of the EIS based on characteristics like noise levels and amount of pollutants generated. A June 12 report by the FAA, a revision to earlier updates of the original 2014 EIS, concluded that the Starship test plan, including 15 low- and high-altitude hop tests, “conforms to the prior environmental documentation, [and] that the data contained in the 2014 EIS remain substantially valid.” It also endorsed a SpaceX proposal to build a second test pad at the site “in the case of an anomaly on the primary test pad.”

A new environmental assessment, including potentially a new full-fledged EIS, could take significant time to complete. The original EIS for Boca Chica started with a notice of intent to develop the study in April 2012, followed by publication of a draft version a year later for public comment. The FAA published the final version more than a year after the draft report.

SpaceNews

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White House officials recommends slow approach to high-speed suborbital transportation

Starship point-to-point

WASHINGTON — A White House official said June 22 that while the administration supports commercial space transportation, companies with ambitions of high-speed point-to-point suborbital spaceflight should focus on near-term goals instead.

At an online meeting of the Federal Aviation Administration’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), Scott Pace, executive secretary of the National Space Council, reaffirmed the White House’s support for the commercial space industry in general and commercial space transportation in particular.

“The creation of a lightly regulated entrepreneurial space industry, supported by regulation that adapts to changes, is really a model for the rest of the world as they decide how they want to take advantage of space,” he said.

Pace largely gave an overview of the various space policy directives issued by the Trump administration to date, as well as ongoing work to update the overall National Space Policy, last revised by the Obama administration in 2010. A couple more policy directives or executive orders, like the one issued April 6 regarding space resources, are “in the pipeline” but not yet ready for release. “Stay tuned, as we have a couple other policy directives and announcements gearing up,” he said.

It’s unlikely those future announcements will address one potential commercial space market, point-to-point suborbital spaceflight for transporting cargo or people. Asked about the prospects of that market by COMSTAC members, Pace argued it didn’t appear to be one that would emerge for years to come.

“I still see that as somewhat speculative and somewhat over the horizon,” he said. “I see us working right now on trying to get the suborbital market up, running and sort of stabilized. I think people look forward to the possibility of point-to-point passenger and cargo travel, but right now just getting routine suborbital access to space and pushing hard on the unmanned hypersonic and military applications is where the action is.”

“Maybe it’s not too soon to think about,” he added, “but I still think that’s a bit farther out until I see how the initial market settles out.”

Those comments appear to be directed in particular at Virgin Galactic, which has made clear since its merger last year with holding company Social Capital Hedosophia its long-term interest in high-speed passenger spaceflight. Company documents have identified point-to-point transportation, using systems derived from its SpaceShipTwo suborbital vehicle, as the “ultimate application” of that technology.

While its SpaceShipTwo vehicle has yet to enter service on suborbital spaceflights — the vehicle made its most recent, unpowered test May 1 from Spaceport America in New Mexico — Virgin Galactic still has point-to-point travel as a long-term goal. The company announced May 5 it signed a Space Act Agreement with NASA to support research on such vehicles.

That agreement will allow the company to work with NASA experts “to make quicker progress on key areas that are the long-lead technology areas for a high-Mach vehicle,” said George Whitesides, chief executive of Virgin Galactic, in an earnings call the day the agreement was announced.

However, Virgin Galactic is not the only spaceflight company with point-to-point ambitions. SpaceX unveiled plans in 2017 to use its next-generation launch system, now called Starship, to transport people across the planet. In that video, a vehicle took off from a floating platform in New York Harbor and landed on a similar platform just off the coast of Shanghai 39 minutes later.

The timeline for such flights is not clear, but the company is working on one key supporting technology needed for such services. SpaceX recently published job openings for offshore engineers, seeking people to help “design and build an operational offshore rocket launch facility.”

Musk, in a June 16 tweet confirming the job openings, said, “SpaceX is building floating, superheavy-class spaceports for Mars, moon & hypersonic travel around Earth.”

Regulatory reforms

Earlier in the COMSTAC meeting, FAA officials provided an update on ongoing regulatory activities, including a “streamlining” of launch and reentry regulations. The draft version of those new regulations, published in April 2019, generated significant criticism from companies who believed the rules were instead a step backwards.

After a public comment period for the draft rules closed in August, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) has been working to review the comments and incorporate changes into the final rule. “We are currently in the ‘sausage-making’ stage of the review cycle,” said Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, at the meeting.

That work is nearly complete. The FAA still plans to publish a final rule in the fall, likely in September, which means the rule will soon go to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for a required review before publication.

“This was a challenging task, but I am pretty impressed from where we’ve come” from the draft rule, said Lirio Liu, executive director for the Office of Operational Safety within AST. “It has extensively changed so that it is actually reflective of comments and allows us to do the intent of the national space policy,” which called for a streamlining of launch regulations in Space Policy Directive 2 in 2018.

“I am confident it is absolutely going to be better than the regulations that we operate under today,” Monteith said.

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