Nield Lays Out FAA Commercial Space Budget for Congress

FAA Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation George Nield testified today about the agency’s proposed FY 2012 budget before the House Committee on Science’s Subcommittee on Space and Aeronautics. Key highlights from his prepared statement include:

  • $26.6 million overall budget for the Office of Commercial Space Transportation
  • 103 full-time employees
  • $1.2 million and 14 full-time positions “to develop and implement additional safety processes and requirements specifically for commercial human spaceflight and the FAA’s efforts to improve spaceflight safety”
  • $5 million and 50 positions for a new Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center to be located at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida
  • $5 million for the Low-Cost Access to Space Incentive to award to “the first non-governmental team to develop and demonstrate the capability to launch a 1-kilogram cubesat to orbit using a partially reusable launch system.”

Nield said the funding would allow the office to achieve the following projected outputs in the next fiscal year:

  • process 6 license and permit applications
  • conduct 40 launch or reentry operations inspections
  • make 8 launch site inspections
  • complete 5 environmental assessments
  • develop new rule-making products
  • support the Commercial Space Flight Technical Center
  • finance the Center of Excellence for Commercial Space Transportation
  • create incentives for low cost access to space.

The FAA associate administrator said the agency needs to expand itself to properly oversee the growing commercial launch industry.

In calendar year 2010, there were four licensed orbital launches: two Falcon 9 test fights and two satellite deployment missions—a Delta II and a Delta IV. That same year, we saw the first FAA-licensed reentry, of SpaceX’s Dragon capsule. In FY 2012, we expect several dozen licensed or permitted launches. Although most of those missions will involve suborbital launches, it still will be quite a change. The dramatic increase in launch numbers will provide the FAA and the space community with important data and facilitate significant improvements throughout the industry.

Nield also explained the function of the planned technical center in Florida to lawmakers:

Specifically, the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center will perform several functions: spaceflight safety, including safety inspections, and accident prevention and investigation activities; spaceflight engineering and standards, to be developed in cooperation with both NASA and the industry, for spacecraft, spaceports, flight crew and participants, and aerospace technicians; range operations, including planning for future upgrades; and facilitating interagency coordination and information sharing with regard to space situational awareness, orbital debris, and collision avoidance advisories.

Although the relationship between the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center and NASA will be vital, the Center will not duplicate NASA functions. NASA has a separate mission and is focused on activities such as the safety of its personnel during transport to and from the ISS, operation of the ISS, development of a new Heavy-Lift launch vehicle, robotic and human exploration of the solar system, Earth and space science, and aeronautics. The FAA is a regulatory agency and has the statutory responsibility to oversee commercial space launches and reentries, and to ensure public safety during these operations. Establishment of the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center will enable the FAA to strengthen its partnership with NASA, drawing on NASA’s expertise and experience in space operations and human space flight to augment the FAA’s experience in licensing and regulating commercial launches to develop a highly skilled cadre of commercial space hardware and operations experts.

Fiscal Year 2012 begins on Oct. 1.