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Spaceports Launch the Next Frontier in Flight - The Basics of Commercial Space Operations

Source -, By Paul Cianciolo

Daily launches of spacecraft through our National Airspace System (NAS) may become the norm in a few years. While that might elicit visions of falling reentry vehicles and dodging high-powered rockets for some members of the general aviation (GA) community, don’t fret! It’s the FAA’s job to make sure that space operations don’t jeopardize public health and safety, and that the air traffic system functions smoothly for all of its users. Let’s take a look into the new frontier of government and industry collaboration making this a safe reality.

Unlike NASA, which is a civil research and development agency, the FAA is a regulatory agency responsible for providing a safe and efficient aerospace system. This responsibility includes regulating commercial space transportation. That’s where the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) comes into play.

The FAA is responsible for regulating all private launch and reentry activities and the operations of launch and reentry sites. This task includes all commercial launches or reentries within U.S. borders or outside of our borders when conducted by U.S. entities. All commercial launches and reentries must be licensed by the FAA, but suborbital reusable rockets and launch vehicles have the option to operate under an experimental permit. Launch and reentry site operators must also be licensed in order to operator their commercial “spaceports.”

Airports of the Future

FAA licensed launch and reentry sites are commonly referred to as spaceports. Each spaceport is specifically licensed according to the type of launch and reentry operations conducted, (e.g., a vertical rocket launch or a horizontal space-plane takeoff and landing.)

Mohave Spaceport

Every spaceport is different, and each is typically designed to support specific types of vehicles. Consequently, the FAA considers each request for approval on a case-by-case basis to ensure public safety and proper integration into the NAS. Some spaceports, like Mojave Air and Space Port (KMHV), are collocated with a public airport. Others, like Spaceport America (9NM9) in New Mexico, are built for a specific purpose.

There are currently 10 active spaceports with FAA launch site operator licenses, which are located in Florida, Texas, California, New Mexico, Alaska, Virginia, and Oklahoma. An operator license authorizes launches or reentries from one site within a range of operational parameters of the same family of vehicles that are transporting specified classes of payloads or performing specified activities. An operator license remains in effect for five years from the date it’s issued.

spaceport map

spaceport map 2

Flying into Space

Though the FAA does not offer an astronaut certificate or rating, crew are required to have vehicle training tailored to the specific operation. When a piloted vehicle is travelling through the NAS to and from a spaceport, the pilot or remote operator must have at least a FAA private pilot certificate with an instrument rating — the spacecraft will always traverse Class A airspace, and it will require contact with air traffic control (ATC).

“Currently, we accommodate space operations by blocking off, or ‘sterilizing,’ a large amount of airspace,” notes Teri Bristol, FAA’s Air Traffic Organization Chief Operating Officer, in a recent message to employees. “This approach works today because there are so few operations and most take place from only a couple of coastal locations. But as commercial space operations increase, this could potentially create lengthy delays or reroutes for other aircraft. We’re going to have to move from accommodation to integration, meaning that we take into account the needs of all airspace users — just as we are doing with unmanned aircraft.”

A spacecraft pilot must also have training on the specific launch vehicle flown. Crew requirements are detailed in Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations part 460.

Hitching a Ride

There are also requirements for any human along for the ride into space or near-space. Non-crew members are designated as space flight participants, which is legally different from the status of a passenger on a certificated aircraft. Before receiving compensation or making an agreement to fly a space flight participant, a spacecraft operator must inform each participant in writing about the risks of the launch and reentry, including the safety record of the launch or reentry vehicle type and obtain written informed consent. An operator must present this information in a manner that can be readily understood by a space flight participant with no specialized education or training.

An operator must also train each space flight participant before flight on how to respond to emergency situations, including smoke, fire, loss of cabin pressure, and emergency exit. Security requirements to prevent any space flight participant from jeopardizing the safety of the flight crew or the public must be also implemented — participants may not carry on board any explosives, firearms, knives, or other weapons.

What Goes Up, Must Come Down

A suborbital reusable launch vehicle (RLV) is the spacecraft of choice for the new private space industry because of significant cost savings. The FAA may issue an experimental permit rather than a license for the launch of and reentry of reusable suborbital rockets or RLVs for:

  • Research and development to test new design concepts, new equipment, or new operating techniques;
  • Showing compliance with requirements as part of the process for obtaining a license; or
  • Crew training prior to obtaining a license for a launch or reentry using the design of the rocket for which the permit would be issued.

Unlike orbital launches that need to gain a significant horizontal velocity, most suborbital RLVs essentially fly straight up. Once they reach space, the laws of physics bring the vehicle back down to Earth after giving the occupants several minutes of microgravity. Because RLVs are specifically designed to return to Earth for reuse, the FAA issues RLV mission licenses that combine a launch and a reentry license into one. Let’s take a look at the different ways launch and reentry vehicles travel though the NAS.

One concept is the familiar rocket with a capsule on top, like Blue Origin’s New Shepard. There are no control surfaces to maneuver the rocket, so other traffic must be clear of the area during launch. Airspace, including the areas where the booster rocket and capsule will eventually come down, must be cleared around the spaceport to minimize risks to other aircraft.

Another concept launches horizontally. An example is XCOR Aerospace’s Lynx, which is similar to a typical airplane in that it takes off horizontally from a runway — but it does so under rocket power. After a controlled ascent reaching Mach 2.9, its momentum carries it the rest of the way into space. Then the spacecraft glides back down and lands at a spaceport as a glider on reentry.

SpaceShip Two

And a third suborbital RLV concept involves the combination of two aircraft, such as Virgin Galactic’s SpaceShipTwo. The spacecraft is attached to and carried by the mothership into Class A airspace, where it is released at 50,000 feet. The spacecraft then accelerates to Mach 4 to reach space. The spacecraft returns to Earth as a glider and lands on a runway of a commercial spaceport.

Tracking Stardust

To help with automating airspace integration with spacecraft, the FAA is prototyping a tool called the Space Data Integrator (SDI). A real-time operational demonstration should be happening when SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft comes in for its next reentry mission, which should be around the publish date of this article.

“Through SDI, we’ll be able to automate the operational procedures that air traffic controllers currently perform for space operations,” explains Bristol. “We’ll be able to determine the right amount of airspace to block off for these operations and more efficiently release the blocked airspace so it’s available for other airspace users. We’ll also be able to adapt to contingencies. For instance, if we know that a reentry is coming in off course, we can block off new airspace and release the old airspace.”

space fight vehicles

These efforts are helping the FAA plan and prepare for the safe and efficient integration of commercial space operations into the NAS. Space flight is a an exciting new chapter in aviation history, and one the FAA remains committed to keeping safe for pilots at any altitude. And if you haven’t already, equip your GA aircraft with ADS-B so you can be part of the FAA’s enhanced network that will provide safe separation from all airspace users, including spacecraft. Stay tuned as we accelerate into the future of commercial space travel!

Paul Cianciolo is an assistant editor and the social media lead for FAA Safety Briefing. He is a U.S. Air Force veteran, and a rated aircrew member and search and rescue team leader with the Civil Air Patrol.