29 May 1998
News - Vehicles (Good)
FAA starts study of space traffic control
Reusable launch vehicle companies getting impatient
by Patrick Collins
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) which was given responsibility for regulating commercial space activities in 1995 (though the funding authority remains different from that of the rest of the FAA) has started a study on how best to merge the monitoring and handling of aircraft traffic with rockets and space vehicles that travel to and from outer space.

Patricia Smith, acting associate administrator for commercial space transportation said "It is not a minute too early to start talking about this framework." The goal of the study is to understand how a fully integrated system can best oversee and clear for flight both space and air traffic.

Gary Hudson, CEO of Rotary Rocket which is due to start test-flights of its Roton launch vehicle in 1999, is keen that the FAA should make its preparations as soon as possible, and spoke of people being "...taken by surprise that things are moving so quickly".

The recognition of the need for the integration of air and space traffic mangagement is extremely encouraging, as is the FAA's stated intention of "insuring public safety while not retarding reusable launch vehicle development by over-regulation."

The need for appropriate legal innovation in this area has been under discussion for some years. Smith said "Just as we have flight paths for aviation, we will have space paths for spacecraft." However, this is easier said than done, since there a number of physical problems that make it difficult to apply the concept of airlanes directly to low Earth orbits. These are discussed in "Legal Considerations for Traffic Systems in Near-Earth Space" and "Towards Traffic Control Systems for Near-Earth Space".

The FAA still has some distance to go, however, as can be seen from Smith's further comment: "There's a vast frontier of possibilities for [building] a complete space transportation system that carries goods, services and, ultimately one day, people".

Next year is "ultimately one day"?! Yet that's when some "X Prize" contenders are planning to start test flights. And the prize could be won within 2-3 years. Furthermore, it's only passenger transportation that's going to generate traffic levels that are high enough to require traffic management in space!

This "double-think" comes from the growing divergence between the views of governments' own space agencies and those of commercial companies planning space transportation services whose needs the FAA must serve. But it's understandably difficult for an agency like the FAA to take a formal position that NASA dismisses! Of course, as the reality comes about, the FAA are gradually learning that they're going to have to stand up to NASA's sniggers. But in the meantime we'll continue to see these contradictions. Interesting times!

Source: Space News, April 20-26, p 4.

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Patrick Collins 29 May 1998
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