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.