Commercial Space: Industry Developments and FAA Challenges
(Source: Government Accountability Office; issued June 22, 2016)
In 2015, GAO reported that during the last decade, U.S. commercial space launch companies conducted fewer orbital launches in total than companies in Russia or Europe, which are among their main foreign competitors. However, the U.S. commercial space launch industry has expanded recently. In 2015, U.S. companies conducted eight orbital launches, compared with none in 2011. In addition, in 2015, U.S. companies conducted more orbital launches than companies in Russia, which conducted five, or Europe, which conducted six.

In 2015, GAO reported that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA)—which is responsible for protecting the public with respect to commercial space launches, including licensing and permitting launches—faces challenges. According to FAA officials and industry stakeholders, FAA faces an increasing workload licensing and permitting launches for transporting cargo, and in the future, crew for NASA’s commercial space programs, space tourism, and potentially launching small satellites.

FAA also faces the challenges of whether and when to regulate the safety of crew and spaceflight participants—in 2015 Congress extended the moratorium to 2023—and overseeing new types of vehicles and technologies. (See figure for commercial space launch vehicles.) Challenges also include updating FAA’s method to calculate maximum probable loss—the amount above which the federal government indemnifies the industry for catastrophic loss.

GAO reported in 2015 that FAA’s budget requests for its commercial space launch activities generally were based on the number of projected launches, but that in recent years the actual number of launches was much lower than FAA’s projections.

GAO also reported that, according to FAA officials, more detailed information was not provided in FAA’s budget submissions because the agency lacked information on its workload overseeing commercial space launch activities. In addition, GAO reported that the Office of Commercial Space Transportation did not track the amount of time spent on various activities.

FAA has taken steps to implement GAO’s recommendation that it provide more detailed information in its budget submissions regarding commercial space transportation activities. In its 2017 budget submission, FAA provided workload indices regarding authorizations under which companies conduct one or more launches; on-site inspections; licensing of spaceports; and staffing levels since 2006.


Click here for the full report (20 PDF pages) on the GAO website.

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