Technology

FAA streamlines commercial launch rules to keep the rockets flying

The FAA has published its updated rules for commercial space launches and reentries, streamlining and modernizing the large and complicated set of regulations. With rockets launching in greater numbers and variety, and from more providers, it makes sense to get a bit of the red tape out of the way.

The rules provide for licensing of rocket launch operators and approval of individual launches and reentry plans, among other things. As you can imagine, such rules must be complex in the first place, more so when they’ve been assembled piecemeal for years to accommodate a quickly moving industry.

U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao called the revisions a “historic, comprehensive update.” They consolidate four sets of regulations and unify licensing and safety rules under a single umbrella, while allowing flexibility for different types of operators or operations.

According to a press release from the FAA, the new rules allow:

  • A single operator’s license that can be used to support multiple launches or reentries from potentially multiple launch site locations.
  • Early review when applicants submit portions of their license application incrementally.
  • Applicants to negotiate mutually agreeable reduced time frames for submittals and application review periods.
  • Applicants to apply for a safety element approval with a license application, instead of needing to submit a separate application.
  • Additional flexibility on how to demonstrate high consequence event protection.
  • Neighboring operations personnel to stay during launch or reentry in certain circumstances.
  • Ground safety oversight to be scoped to better fit the safety risks and reduce duplicative requirements when operating at a federal site.

In speaking with leaders in the commercial space industry, a common theme is the burden of regulation. Any reform that simplifies and unifies will likely be welcomed by the community.

The actual regulations are hundreds of pages long, so it’s still hardly a simple task to get a license and start launching rockets. But at least it isn’t several sets of 500-page documents that you have to accommodate simultaneously.

The new rules have been submitted for entry in the Federal Register, and will take effect 90 days after that happens. In addition, the FAA will be putting out Advisory Circulars for public comment — additions and elaborations on the rules that the agency says there may be as many as two dozen of in the next year. You can keep up with those here.