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No Good News for FAA Space Office in FY2018 Request

Marcia S. Smith
Posted: 24-May-2017
Updated: 25-May-2017 02:41 AM

After successfully fighting to get a budget boost in FY2017, the FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) is back to the drawing board in the Trump Administration's FY2018 request.  The office won a $2 million increase to $19.8 million in FY2017, but the FY2018 request is back down to $17.9 billion. The FAA's budget request also includes funding for a space traffic management pilot project.

Advocates for AST have insisted for years that more resources -- money and people -- are needed for the office to keep pace with the growth in the commercial space launch sector.  AST regulates, facilitates and promotes that industry.

Mike Gold chairs AST's Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), whose members are representatives of commercial space companies.  Gold told SpacePolicyOnline.com in an interview today that one issue on which all of COMSTAC's members agree is that AST needs more funding.  He noted that it is rare when companies actually ask that more money be allocated to their government regulators, but inadequate resources could "lead to needless delays, create regulatory bottlenecks and stifle innovation."


Mike Gold, Chairman, COMSTAC. Photo credit:  FAA website.

Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-OK) is another strong supporter of AST, which is part of the Department of Transportation and funded in the Transportation-HUD (T-HUD) appropriations bill.  He testified before the T-HUD subcommittee on March 9 advocating for a $23 million budget for AST in FY2018.  His argument is that space transportation is part of the nation's infrastructure, launching satellites like GPS that are essential to everyday life, and AST needs adequate resources to execute its duties.

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation (CSF), an industry group of more than 70 companies and organizations, also is urging Congress to fund the office at $23 million. In a March 29, 2017 letter to the chair and ranking member of the Senate T-HUD appropriations subcommittee, the CSF especially cited the need for AST to update outdated regulations.  "It is essential that AST not simply apply additional funds to existing licensing approaches, but in fact actually reengineer those approaches to reduce unnecessary burdens to AST as well as industry."  The funding increase should be used "to fix AST's obsolete regulations, and not simply grow its status quo workforce, nor pursue newer missions with a lower priority than the core licensing function."

The letter and Bridenstine's testimony were prepared before the Trump Administration's budget request for AST was publicly known.  The $23 million would be a $3.2 million increase from the FY2017 level, substantial in and of itself.  Now that the request is only for $17.9 million, winning congressional support to raise it to $23 million will be no mean feat.  Getting it back to its FY2017 level of $19.8 million might be more achievable.  Bridenstine and Rep. Derek Kilmer (D-WA) led the fight last year to get the $19.8 million. Kilmer is a member of the House Appropriations Committee; his Seattle-area district is home to companies like Blue Origin and Planetary Resources.  One factor is whether Bridenstine will remain a member of the House and in a position to fight for AST.  He is a candidate to become NASA Administrator.

AST also receives a small amount of money from the Research, Engineering and Development (RE&D) portion of the FAA budget for commercial space transportation safety.  The FY2018 request is $1.796 million, a slight reduction from FY2017.  That money funds its Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation and other R&D activities related to the safe and efficient integration of commercial space transportation into the National Airspace System (NAS).

Integrating commercial space transportation into the NAS is also funded in another part of the FAA's budget -- Facilities & Equipment (F&E) for the Air Traffic Organization (ATO), a different part of the FAA responsible for air traffic control. 

The FAA must clear the airspace around space launches and reentries and is requesting an increase in the F&E FY2018 budget from $2 million to $4.5 million to acquire a Space Data Integrator (SDI) tool that will enable the FAA to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed, respond to unusual scenarios, and release airspace as a mission progresses.

According to the FAA's budget documentation, some of that money also will be used to initiate a pilot program "related to Space Traffic Management" (STM) that will enable FAA to "move toward the goal of monitoring space traffic and reducing the risk of space traffic incidents" and "enable the FAA to monitor space traffic services and their impact to aviation, consistent with the FAA's public safety mission."  The budget document describes the pilot program as funding acquisition of a high performance computing system composed of commercial and governmentally-developed analytical software.  "An initial space situational awareness system comprised of 4 analytical stations with the capability to store and utilize a dynamic orbital object database of roughly 500,000 individual objects will be developed."

STM is an extension of space situational awareness (SSA) -- knowing where space objects are and where they are going in order to avoid collisions.  The Air Force's Joint Space Operations Center (JSPoC) is currently responsible for SSA and computing "conjunction analyses" to warn of potential collisions.  It notifies not only U.S. military users, but commercial and foreign entities (CFEs) as well. 

The Air Force wants the FAA to take over SSA responsibilities for CFEs so JSPoC can focus on military requirements.  Bridenstine and AST Associate Administrator George Nield have been advocating for AST to take on the non-military SSA role for more than a year.  STM implies that an agency has the authority to require a satellite owner to take action to avoid a collision instead of only advising the owner that a collision is possible.  No agency has that authority today, but they view AST as moving into that role over time. 

The pilot program appears to be part of ATO's budget request, however, not AST's.  ATO seems interested in getting involved.  An ATO representative gave a presentation to a Space Traffic Management conference in November 2016 explaining its Commercial Space Integration Team (CSIT) and laying out an "ATO Commercial Space Roadmap."  The budget request does not clarify the respective roles of AST and ATO in this regard.


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