WASHINGTON–After SpaceX successfully launched its heavy-lift rocket into orbit yesterday, aerospace enthusiasts had something to celebrate: the first privately owned spacecraft to reach orbit. SpaceX “made incredibly hard look easy and fun,” Boeing official John Mulholland said about his company’s competitor.
Attendees at a federal conference on private spaceflight were in an optimistic mood after the triumphant launch. But now comes the hard part: cutting the red tape that the industry says has hampered private spaceflight.
Much of the Federal Aviation Administration’s 21st annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference focused on how to streamline regulations governing private rocket launches.
“FAA cannot be a rubber stamp, nor should it be a hurdle. We need to license launches faster, but industry has to improve its safety performance,” Daniel Elwell, acting administrator of the FAA, said.
Warren Frick, program manager at aerospace manufacturer and defense company Orbital ATK, explained that it’s a fine balance the FAA and companies must walk.
“They need a certain amount [of regulations], but they want to make it as minimal as possible because every regulation costs you money, it costs you time [and] effort to meet,” Frick said.
The private space industry is growing rapidly. Founded by billionaire Elon Musk, SpaceX designs, manufactures and launches rockets and spacecraft. Sierra Nevada Corporation and the Jeff Bezos-owned Blue Origins are among the growing number of its competitors.
To apply for a commercial permit to launch a rocket, it takes 120 days for the government to approve a permit application and the company must undergo five different types of reviews, which include reviews for casualty, financial, environmental, policy and payload. Permits only allow companies to get operational experience, but they do not allow firms to charge money to passengers. Companies apply for a license when they want to fly passengers and charge money. Processing an application for licenses usually takes six months.
Companies hope that if the FAA can reduce time processing application, more companies can launch more spacecraft.
“In the future we will have a more streamlined ability to get people to FAA approval,” said Sean Mahoney is CEO of Masten Space Systems, which is developing reusable rockets. “That will be a thing that will help us reduce the costs of launch because we reduce the amount of hours that have to go into doing all the paperwork.”