Tuesday, October 17, 2023

Shocking News: The FAA Isn't Getting All Their Work Done

Who would have thought the FAA wouldn't be able to work on everything they need to get done?  I mean, besides everyone?

That's the message behind a story that SpaceX is urging FAA to double their licensing staff, citing a constant need to adjust priorities between projects, like Falcon 9 launches interfering with Starship licensing, or Starship affecting Dragon launches.  

In a remarkably frank discussion this week, several senior SpaceX officials spoke with Ars Technica on background about how working with the Federal Aviation Administration has slowed down the company's progress not just on development of the Starship program, but on innovations with the Falcon 9 and Dragon programs as well.

The SpaceX officials said they want to be clear that the FAA is doing a reasonably good job with the resources it has, and that everyone supports the mission of safe spaceflight. However, they said, the FAA needs significantly more people working in its licensing department and should be encouraged to prioritize missions of national importance.

The SpaceX officials went on to describe how their different programs have to compete with each other for the FAA's attention.  This has significantly slowed down the Starship program and put development of a Human Landing System for NASA's Artemis program at risk.  

The discussion with Ars was convened by SpaceX in advance of a hearing on Wednesday before the US Subcommittee on Space and Science, at which William Gerstenmaier, vice president of Build and Flight Reliability at SpaceX, will be one of the people testifying. SpaceX hopes that Congress will provide guidance to the FAA on how to operate more efficiently.

An unnamed SpaceX official put their goal for attending like this. “Maybe the committee can give them the big picture goals of what they want to accomplish for the US, and then maybe the FAA can be a little more innovative in how they interpret some of the rules and regulations. Their mission is to enable safe spaceflight. We cannot give up on the safety side, but could there be a little bit more emphasis on the enable side?”

SpaceX put more payloads in space than any other launch provider in the world last year and it was 62 launches.  This year, they're on track to increase that by 50%, up to around 90 launches, and they've stated a goal of increasing by 50% again next year, up to around 135 launches.  Their motivation for increasing the FAA's throughput is obvious, but they're not the only launch provider and we keep hearing that the US launch infrastructure is proving inadequate.  

Don't forget there are United Launch Alliance's Atlas Vs still flying, and their new Vulcan rockets set for next year. There's Blue Origin's New Glenn that may make it next year, and lots of other, smaller rockets flying with new ones coming online. Then there's the increased flight rate by Virgin Galactic, the return to flight by Blue Origin's New Shepard suborbital tourism rocket, and the potential for high-altitude balloon flights. 

“Next year could be a pretty dynamic time with lots of providers in spaceflight," another SpaceX official said. "Our concern is even today Falcon and Dragon are sometimes competing for FAA resources with Starship, and the FAA can’t handle those three activities together. So let alone what's coming next year, or maybe even later this year, we just don't think the FAA is staffed ready to support that.”

At the meeting Gerstenmaier will recommend that the FAA double the staff in the licensing division of its Office of Commercial Space Transportation, which is known as AST. In addition, the FAA should be given "accelerated hiring authority" to draw from the best pool of candidates.

The SpaceX officials said they are losing time due to the review processes for Starship. The rocket for the vehicle's second flight has been ready to go for a little while now, and it likely will be waiting for two more weeks at least to complete regulatory review. The company is concerned that similarly lengthy reviews will delay the myriad future test flights needed to demonstrate Starship's viability, refueling capability, and ability to safely land on the Moon. While the Artemis III mission to land on the Moon is not being delayed day-for-day as a result, the regulatory issues are having an impact.

“Licensing at this point for Starship is a critical path item for the Artemis program, and for our execution," one of the SpaceX officials said. "Certainly looking forward into next year, we really need to operate that program at a higher cadence of flights. Six to eight month turns, that's not great for the program.”

SpaceX said this week that Starship is stacked and ready to fly its second test flight. Image credit: SpaceX

For what it's worth, while I like SpaceX's approach and what they're trying to do, I think that trying to reinvent a bureaucracy is unlikely to work.  As I've rambled about before, the easiest word for a bureaucrat to say is “no” because there's rarely any drawback to saying it.  A bureaucrat knows that if they approve something and a Bad Result happens, they stand a very good chance of being in a chair in front of an investigation and going through an entirely unpleasant day.  If they say no, the lack of something good happening rarely carries the same consequences.


  1. So how it always seems the only solution is always more OPM. OTHER PEOPLE'S MONEY

    1. You may not know that the companies pay, and quite well, for these approvals. The approving agency generally takes a percentage of fees beyond the time and resources directly for the project, so it isn't actually other people's money involved.

    2. You may not understand that the watermelons are running the country today, and all government money goes towards THEIR priorities. Spaceflight is not one of those.

    3. Dear Anonymous,
      It doesn't matter who writes the check. Taxpayers still end up footing the bill through higher taxes or higher prices.

  2. Pretty much every federal agency that permits private actions is understaffed - in many cases, the needed experts simply don't exist.
    In other cases, however, the agencies refuse to pay even what other agencies pay, let alone the private sector, and then complain they can't get people...
    For example, there are lots of projects in the West that need hydrologists, which is a rare specialty. Some agencies only hire them, even with a doctorate, as a GS 11, with no bonuses or extras. Others hire as a 12 with later merit promotions to 13 or 14, often with relocation paid also. It isn't hard to guess which agencies have less trouble hiring!

  3. There is nothing under the sun which any level of government involvement cannot f**k up like they were a pack of monkeys with live hand grenades.

  4. So... why not streamline the process. It's not like there aren't these things called computers that can keep track of stuff (like that's literally the job of the US Space Force, isn't it?) so why does every damned launch have to be doubly and triplely scrutinized?

    Simple form:
    What'cha using for a launch vehicle?
    What'cha launcing from?
    What'cha launching?
    When'ya launching?
    Launching something especially splody or groty?
    What'ya end location (sub orb, orb, geo-orb, trans-lunar, waaaayyyy out there)(could be check boxes)(may have to have multiple lines for multi-payload launches and for all the pieces-parts that come off.)
    What're your plans for deorbiting?

    I mean, it's not rocket science. It's a database/spreadsheet/questionnaire for Pete's sake.

    Yes, hire more people, or drag them from other useless fluff projects (like the now 30 year old computer upgrade project that hasn't been upgraded yet.) And while yer at it, streamline the process and make it better and more user friendly.

    It's not like, well, with Atlas and Falcon9/Falcon Heavy, the technology isn't mature. And changes to the existing mature tech isn't a light-year leap, it's just nudging the current tech a tad or a scootch. Which is usually handled by a test flight (for SpaceX that means sending up more Starlink sats...)

    Yeesh, FAA, release the Kraken, dudes.

    Same with all the other regulatory bullscat from all the other regulatory agencies. EPA? There's no new chemicals being used, so come on... Fish&Wildlife? If the Government can set off nukes and explosives and stuff without repercussions, then back the frick off, like, duh, same animals and plants being messed with at the Cape and other launch locations, and nobody's launching off of private land in California so no worries about snail darters and other obscure sub-sub-sub species.

    Great googly-moogly. Makes my brain hurt.

  5. Something I didn't say that's important and applies to virtually every comment here is that government agencies have an incentive to under staff and under perform. Once it becomes a legal requirement that something like a launch license be obtained, both under staffing and performing get "customers" to insist they get a bigger budget and staff, making them a more powerful and bigger agency.

    OTOH, they have zero incentive to streamline the process or (God forbid) work free overtime to get their jobs done. From the way the source article sounds (and it's understandable SpaceX may be more complimentary than the FAA deserves) the FAA has been flexible and helpful. They just have more work than they can do.

    1. Si, My father was an In-Route ATC and back in their glory days (Prior to the 90's) they did very well.
      One thing I did notice on your very accurate description of the designed failure of this bureaucracy, is just how much this also describes our Public School System (or scam as those terms are inter-changeable these days)

      Personal Opinion: Public Unions should NOT be allowed to exist because of the negative feedback loop created when Unions Fund the Politicians who vote on their budget.

    2. "They just have more work than they can do."

      No problem. Take all that nasty work away from them, and put the onus and civil liability on Space-X to self-monitor and approve, using open-published guidelines and checklists.
      If the FAA objects in any way, they can simply do twice the work to show cause, or else STFU. Like every IRS audit in history.
      Problem solved.

      And FAA's workload gets progressively cut back, in perpetuity, until one day they wake up and they have nothing to do, and they can thus butt TF Out entirely, and serious people with skin in the game can go about their business. The FAA can go back to harassing private pilots for their biennials and such.

      >Cue heavenly host singing allelujahs.<

    3. MSG Grumpy: one of the things that stood out to me when I first learned it was that even FDR was opposed to government jobs being unionized. He's got such the rep as the absolute liberal president that it really surprised me.

  6. Do what C.C. Myers did. The 1994 Northridge earthquake severely damaged a bridge on a crucial freeway. C.C. Myers was hired to make the repair.
    C.C. ran 3 shifts around the clock. CalTrans and other state agencies complained they couldn't keep up with the pace. They demanded that Myers slow down. In typical fashion, C.C. himself told them no (in much more descriptive terms).
    Stories such as state inspectors on site standing in the wrong spot as a new batch of concrete was being poured were legion, and legendary.

    CalTrans, et al got the message and decided it prudent that they show some hustle rather than tangle with C C..

    Remember, everything in government is subject to being waived.

  7. Space X, be careful of what you ask.
    Its small odds that FAA hires the best. FAA will hire according to fedgov hiring stands, which is to say ethnicity, sexual preference, and ideology are primary.

    I would argue for the opposite; that there be less gov admin, less gov procedure. That there is even mention that a gov employee find themselves in the hot seat having an 'unpleasant day' because of a Bad Result simply defies reason.
    (My annoyance is not with SiG but with fedgov.)
    Many times I have seen how gov employees believe and act as if they are on the team of private industry.

  8. The current regime is more focused on DEI and Woke competencies than technical expertise and job performance.