Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight
2167 Rayburn House Office Building and online via videoconferencing
This is a hearing of the Subcommittee on Aviation.
Opening remarks, as prepared, of Subcommittee on Aviation Ranking Member Garret Graves (R-LA):
Thank you, Chair Larsen, and I also want thank our witnesses for being here today.
For many years, the commercial space transportation industry more than earned the moniker of “nascent.” In fact, in 2011 the FAA licensed only one single commercial space launch.
But the last few years have been transformative. Nearly half of the more than 400 space launches licensed by the FAA have occurred since 2011. The FAA now routinely licenses a launch a week or more. Three American companies will be taking passengers into space just this year, with a fourth set to join them next year. In 2011, there were just over 1,000 active satellites in orbit; now there are more than 3,300.
What used to be a science project is now a thriving transportation industry that transports passengers and hundreds of billions of dollars’ worth of cargo to, from, and within outer space. As this industry continues to advance, it is important that we explore what steps we should take to lay a foundation for the next decade of growth.
This Committee’s number one priority is safety. While spaceflight is an inherently risky endeavor, we all know that there is no future for commercial space transportation unless launch vehicles are safe. Although the FAA has a perfect public safety record for commercial launches, a statutory learning period has restricted the issuance of launch vehicle crew and passenger safety regulations. This period of time, much like the early barnstorming days of aviation, has allowed time to work through the complexities of commercial space transportation and develop consensus standards.
After a slow start, the consensus standards work is gathering momentum. This policy has been very successful in promoting both growth and safety. The learning period expires in September 2023, and Congress will need to decide whether to extend the learning period, let it lapse, or find an alternative policy solution. This is an important question, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses on this issue.
Adequate resourcing of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST) and leveraging the expertise of the private sector are also important issues. While launch cadences have increased by more than 400% over the last 5 years, AST’s staffing has increased by only 15%.
General Monteith recently led AST through a reorganization and completed a revamp of the FAA’s launch and reentry regulations. We should take a hard look at ensuring that AST is as efficient as possible, that it has access to industry expertise, and that FAA resources don’t hold the commercial space transportation industry back.
The increased launch cadences are also challenging our limited airspace resources. We must ensure that FAA develops the tools and equipment necessary to safely integrate commercial space transportation launches into our National Airspace System.
But we cannot focus solely on the safety of our airspace at launch; we must also consider its safety when objects return from space. That is why Chair Larsen and I recently introduced the Aerospace Debris Safety Act, which directs the FAA to establish a system to track reentering space debris, block affected airspace, and warn aircraft when such debris may pose a hazard. Even small satellites reentering the atmosphere can create debris clouds through which aircraft may fly. The bill also directs the DOT to provide space situational awareness data and services to ensure commercial space transportation safety on-orbit and to prevent the potentially catastrophic collisions of satellites and debris.
Just this weekend, the G7 recognized the growing issue of space debris and the need for a collaborative approach for space traffic management. Although some have proposed to place these authorities in a different agency, I believe that the FAA is the right agency for the job.
Finally, I’m excited to announce that I have reintroduced the 21st Century Aerospace Infrastructure Act, which provides infrastructure improvement grants to commercial spaceports. These grants will represent an important Federal contribution to the capital needs of our national spaceport system and leverage state, local, and private investment in these assets.
Addressing these issues and others is critical to ensuring that we maintain our leadership in aerospace. I look forward to continuing to work on bipartisan solutions to these questions.