Earlier this week the Transportation, Housing and Urban Development, and Related Agencies subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee marked up its fiscal year 2015 spending bill. The bill includes funding for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), including $16 million for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). That’s less than the $16.6 million requested for FY2015 by the administration and the $16.3 million it received for FY2014.
At first glance, that cut appears minor. However, at this week’s meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC), an industry group that advises FAA/AST, both FAA and industry officials warned that the proposed cut, or even flat funding levels, could have significant negative impacts on the commercial space industry given current and projected growth in launch activities.
“The number for the FAA is pretty disturbing from the House,” said Mike Gold of Bigelow Aerospace, chairman of COMSTAC, at a public meeting of COMSTAC working groups on Wednesday in Washington. “It doesn’t sound like a lot of money, but with increasing costs and increased activity, a lower figure for the FAA could be quite devastating.”
Gold went on to argue that the potential impact of the cuts isn’t recognized even by people within the industry. “I believe we could face a triage situation,” he suggested, where licenses for commercial cargo missions to the ISS are prioritized over those for suborbital commercial vehicles or proposed new spaceports. “We could end up waiting in line as a commercial industry.”
George Nield, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, did not directly address the proposed House cut for his office during a speech at the full COMSTAC meeting on Thursday, but did warn flat budgets would make it difficult for his office to keep up with the growth in commercial launch activity. He noted that while there were only three launches in fiscal year 2012 that took place under commercial launch licenses or experimental permits, there were 18 such launches in fiscal year 2013, and likely even more in 2014 and beyond.
“If we assume that our budget will continue to remain flat, as it has for the last few years, keeping up with the needs of industry is going to be challenging, to say the least,” Nield said. So far, he said that AST has kept up with the growing workload, and has made efforts to streamline its work. “But frankly, I don’t consider the current situation to be sustainable.”
As Gold suggested Wednesday, Nield said that “some kind of prioritization” may be needed to determine which licensing and other activities get first access to the office’s resources. “It’s not a good situation for any of us, obviously,” Nield said.
Michael Romanowski, director of the Space Integration Office at FAA/AST, said later at the COMSTAC meeting that the office was looking at ways to improve the licensing process in order to reduce the workload, given the office’s flat budget and workforce. “With the workload we’re facing, licensing is going to become a significant barrier,” he said. AST is required by law to make a determination on a launch license within 180 days of that license being considered substantially complete, but he cautioned that may soon not be possible under the current system.
(Disclosure: the author has previously worked with FAA/AST, but is not currently.)