Spaceflight training jets, balloons create challenges for FAA

Commercial spaceflight support can include high-performance jets, balloons and hybrid jet/rocket systems

spaceflight-training-jets-balloons-create-challenges-for-faa

An F-104 aircraft privately operated by Starflighters flies over the Shuttle Landing Facility at Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral. Starfighters offer training missions assessing sub-orbital flights and have worked with NASA to assess launch trajectories and sonic booms.

Credit: Reuters

As the commercial space flight industry grows, the need for proper training and certification of support personnel and aircraft – which can include all manner of high-performance jets, balloons and hybrid jet/rocket systems – is going to be regulatory challenge for the Federal Aviation Administration.

A recent report from the Government Accountability Office said companies they interviewed had received standard aircraft certification for their space support vehicle, but for others the standard certification process is lengthy and not designed for the type of vehicles they would like to use, such as unique, single-production aircraft or retired military jets.

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“In addition, FAA regulations do not let companies receive compensation for carrying people or property on an aircraft operating under an experimental certificate. As a result, some of the companies we interviewed have training operations in other countries where they can receive payment for the activity,” the GAO wrote.

The GAO also said that FAA regulations do not let companies receive compensation for carrying people or property on an aircraft operating under an experimental certificate. As a result, some of the companies the GAO interviewed have training operations in other countries where they can receive payment for the activity.

“Further, FAA's Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST)—the office that regulates commercial space activities—is only authorized to regulate commercial space activities, such as launches, focusing on the safety of third parties. According to FAA officials, a statutory or regulatory change would be needed to allow companies to use space support vehicles that do not meet the FAA's Office of Aviation Safety standard certification requirements for compensation,” the GAO wrote. AVS oversees civil aviation in the United States and therefore regulates aircraft that may be used for space support activities.

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How soon regulatory changes will be needed is also an issue as it isn’t entirely clear how big the market for these support flight systems will get, the GAO stated. “The U.S. commercial space-launch industry generated $617 million in revenue in 2015 and has experienced significant growth in the past half-decade. FAA reported that its licensed launches have increased 60% and industry revenue has increased 471% since 2012.

According to FAA officials, the commercial space transportation industry is evolving and the agency has worked with companies individually to determine how they can legally operate within the current regulatory system.

“However, FAA officials acknowledge that this issue is potentially growing as more companies try to figure out how to cost-effectively provide what they see as a potential market—supporting commercial space transportation. The FAA has taken steps to assess the licensing and permitting process for hybrid launch vehicles; however, it has not assessed whether space support vehicles are needed to meet the potential research, training, and other needs of the commercial space transportation industry, and if it should propose changes that would accommodate all aircraft that could be used as space support vehicles,” the GAO stated.

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