Friday, November 10, 2023

FAA: You Want Launch Licenses Faster? Pay Our Expenses

In mid-October, starting on the 18th, a series of meetings began between the FAA and the space launch industry because the launch industry maintains that the FAA isn't getting their job done.  This week, one of the top officials at the Department of Transportation suggested that the space industry should help pay for the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial space office.

Speaking at a virtual meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) Nov. 8, Polly Trottenberg, deputy secretary of transportation, all but rejected calls from industry to sharply increase the budget of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST, to deal with growing levels of launch activity. 

At the October 18th hearing, the industry experts testifying in the Senate Commerce Committee's meeting recommended a significant budget increase for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation, or AST,  Bill Gerstenmaier of SpaceX, specifically recommended doubling the office’s budget to hire more people to handle launch and reentry licensing.  In FY '23, the AST office received nearly $37.6 million in funding.  

Deputy Secretary Trottenberg, when asked about increasing AST's budget said the agency has "competing priorities" and noted aviation did not receive as much support in last year’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law as other modes of transportation.  

She proposed that it may be time for industry to contribute some portion of additional revenues needed for enhancing AST. “We’re an agency that has the ability to generate revenue and I think that’s going to be a question for this industry,” she said, adding that she was offering her own opinion and not that of the department itself.

While the FAA does generate revenue from user fees for aviation, it has not generally collected any such fees for launch licensing. She returned to it later in the meeting when another COMSTAC member noted the relatively small size of the AST budget relative to the overall FAA budget. The FAA requested $19.8 billion for fiscal year 2024, of which $42 million would go to AST.

Say what?  $42 million out of $19.8 Billion? That's 0.2%  Isn't that a rounding error?  A mistake in estimating costs?  I know that the various offices, like AST, in the FAA will be fighting over their pennies, but it just seems that if the AST is 0.2% of the budget of the FAA, doubling the AST to 0.4% of the $19.8 billion isn't going to take too much from any one other office or department or whatever they're called.  

To be blunt, in my experience in industry if expenses on a job came out to be off by 0.2% over a year, the manager would be legendary and talked about for years.

I don't believe that any part of the is so tightly managed that they'd even know a 0.2% change was going on.  The FAA sees a way to milk the industry for money.  That's all.  It's no different than that guy from ESA referring to "Rocket-by-billionaire."  In the FAA's case it's "if they want us to be responsive, they can grease our palms."  Do your best Goodfellas mafia-guy voice, "what's it worth to you?"

Falcon 9 launch from Cape Canaveral SFS the night of October 17, 2023, the night before the meeting addressing launch licensing.  SpaceX photo.


  1. Don't launch providers already pay licensing and application fees?

    And, yes, sounds like extortion.

  2. Just another sign we are descending into third world status. You want a launch license, that will be twenty for the government and fifty for me.

    1. Do not forget the 10% for the "Big Guy!"

  3. Let me tell you how it will be -
    that's one for you, nineteen for me!
    'Cause I'm the Tax Man, yea-a-ah I'm the The Tax Ma-a-an...
    And, you're working... for no one... but me!!

  4. I think this is a really bad idea, but for different reasons. This might not be so bad for the space launch companies - look how the drug industry funding a portion of the FDA has worked out for the drug companies! The golden rule applies, and as a result the bureaucracy will put industry profitability above their regulatory responsibilities.

  5. Pay for play is just part of how "our" govt works these days..

  6. This is throughout government. Hams must pay $35 to get a new license or renew an existing one. The latter probably takes one keystroke from the administrator of an FCC database. And they don't even mail you a copy of the license. You must have email and they send you a link to a pdf.

  7. A good place to start would be to ask what needs to be regulated and why.

    1. Exactly. Except the people to never ask what needs to be regulated are the regulators. They think the answer is “everything.”