The Space Industry Needs Its Own Regulator


I wonder what the vetting process is for items that reach FAA Administrator Steve Dickson’s desk. There’s a lot going on at the agency these days and he’s just one guy. Something I’m sure he’s noticed, however, is how many of his valuable seconds and minutes are expended on the issues of the day that involve space operations.

The commercial space industry has exploded in the last five years (pun intended and germane to the argument that follows) and when activity increases in anything, problems tend to rear their ugly heads. I have no way of knowing, but Dickson will likely get briefed on a new Office of Inspector General review of potential conflicts between spacecraft and aircraft, an investigation into the publicity ride featuring Virgin Galactic’s founder Sir Richard Branson that went off course and then there’s Elon Musk. Dickson probably sets aside time every day to get briefed on what arrogant and irritatingly sensible buttons Musk is pushing.

That doesn’t leave much time for the mundane aviation topics he also has to keep an eye on, like yahoos on airliners punching flight attendants because they don’t want to wear masks, brand-new airliners that don’t get built right, and a Wild West movement to fill the skies with tiny electric multi-rotor aircraft that are somehow supposed to make urban transport safer and more convenient. Oh, and let’s not forget that a cellphone carrier has FCC approval to test a new 5G system that could jam GPS signals, which are fundamental to the FAA’s air traffic management system. This is not an exhaustive list but you get the idea.

The FAA was born of a need to provide regulatory foundation to the society-changing aviation industry. We all know the clichés but it’s hard to argue with the overall track record of the agency, despite its recent issues. Aviation is the safest way to travel, period, and when you consider what’s involved that’s pretty remarkable.

I think it’s time the commercial space industry got its own regulatory body. Please be civil in the comments. Creating a new government agency won’t be a popular notion among many of you but hear me out. Commercial space operations will fundamentally change the way we all live. I live in one of the obscure and isolated areas that qualify for Elon Musk’s (that guy again) Starlink satellite Internet service’s beta trial. I can limp along with the phone company’s pathetic offering for now because it’s somewhat cheaper than Musk’s system but neighbors who don’t have even the meager access that we have are signing up in droves and getting fiber speeds on their mountaintops.

Musk’s ground floor operation will likely be a footnote in the evolution of space-based services and I can’t begin to imagine how that’s going to affect me and my family. What I do know is I would like some oversight whose vigor matches the Gold Rush pace of development. This is not an industry that should be run off the corner of the FAA administrator’s desk.

It’s not just regulatory issues that need the full attention of a standalone space bureaucracy. That agency has to have the same fundamental mandate at the FAA’s, which is to foster and promote the industry. There are also some practical reasons to hive off the space business to a new agency. If you read the FAA press releases about space stuff, it’s always in the context of finding room for space operations without disrupting aviation. Maybe there needs to be a little more give and take in that regard.

And when it comes to funding, it seems like space governance might get a better shake as its own entity than as a department of an agency that is fundamentally at odds with its increasingly frequent intrusions in its sandbox.

The final frontier is becoming an inextricable part of every human being’s life. Starlink will bring high-speed Internet to every square inch of the earth (and likely to our seven acres if the phone company doesn’t get off its duff) and this is Kitty Hawk times in the aviation context.

Industry needs robust and enforceable regulation to thrive in a free society and the space industry deserves nothing less than its own bureaucracy to hate.

For heaven’s sake, let’s be careful with the name. No clever acronyms, no double entendres or drawing on our inner nerds. How about the U.S. Space Administration or USSA.

Russ Niles
Russ Niles is Editor-in-Chief of AVweb. He has been a pilot for 30 years and joined AVweb 22 years ago. He and his wife Marni live in southern British Columbia where they also operate a small winery.

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  1. As much as it pains me to agree that still another Government regulatory agency should be established, I have to agree with your assessment. It IS time to break space based control away from the FAA. In fact, there are a few other areas I could see being broken away, too. The USAF was forced to establish a separate Space Force; why not the FAA, too ? At some point, any bureaucratic entity develops too much administrative inertia to be rapidly able to cope with the myriad of issues laid before them. To deal with it all, lower level bureaucrats — often with their own agendas — gain powerful control whereupon the larger organization loses focus.

    I attended the Meet the Administrator forum at Airventure 2021. Hearing Mr. Dickson tell us that it’d take four years to repair the LODA debacle is not only ridiculous, it is unacceptable if not crimminal. In 1958 when the FAA was formed, promulgation of aviation was one of it’s two core mission statements. In the 90’s, they managed to drop that. In the process of then focusing solely on safety, the FAA has become an adversarial entity doing just the opposite … stifling and harming aviation. We’re flying aging airplanes precisely because of that problem. Now toss in the other areas of control you bring up and what to you have … a loss of control because the span is just too great.

    • I’m not so sure. Given more available time, the FAA will likely only use it for to stifle GA further. More ASTM and less certification hurdles, or similar processes that gets the FAA out of the loop might mean better engines for our planes while some of us can still fly.

  2. Maybe, but who then guarantees cooperation and deals with the inevitable conflicts between two bureaucratic juggernauts which will by necessity step onto each other’s turf every launch and recovery? The President?

  3. You are correct that more government might still help in some areas. I’ll give you your a space agency so long as it means it’s set up without being set up with seeds of growth and unaccountability all the existing agencies seem to have. Maybe the example could be used to then fix the FAA, EPA, IRS…

    Anyone read a book called the Weed Agency? Awesome.

  4. Why?

    Just another do-gooder panacea notion, that will increase cost to taxpayers.

    A properly run organization has ability to handle many things, delegating with oversight is one method.

    Leadership is key – yes, gummints often lack that.

    I read the FAA as not concerned about spaceships blowing up, at least unmanned ones, just about pieces falling on others. But the fan will become brown with public ranting if someone like Braggart Branson kills himself or others.

  5. Give NASA the airspace above 60,000–(or something a little higher in anticipation of those supersonic airliners mentioned in press releases–sarcasm) and let the FAA control the climb/descent corridors. Obviously, an IFR flight plan must be filed, so ATC has knowledge and a TRA can be established.

    All pieces are ALREADY in place, and if the U.S. takes this leadership position, it can be copied throughout the world–no need for yet ANOTHER level of government bureaucracy!

  6. Although I hate the idea of forming a new governmental regulator, getting the FAA out of the “space flight” business is needed. I have advocated that for a long time now since all the FAA is interested in is red tape and more bureaucracy. The sooner the FAA is removed from regulating space flight the better.

  7. My God, the last thing we need in our lives is another worthless governmental agency that does nothing but spend money and does the opposite of what it’s suppose to do. AVweb editorial/opinion pieces have turned into government lobbyist.

  8. I really like Jim Hanson’s idea above. We’ve already got NASA, and until spaceships are as common as flying cars and rocketing up from every driveway they’re going to be found at only a few ‘spaceports’. Let the FAA manage the TFRs needed around those spaceports to get them through the Class A, and let NASA handle it from there.

    • That is kind of what Jim Hanson’s and Bob’s comments reflect. I would stop the FAA at the Karmen line and give control over to NASA above it. The FAA can still set up either temporary TFRs on launch days, even down to time, or set up more permanent class B style airspace with active controllers maintaining control. This way instead of a plane flying into the space and having a launch hold or abort there could be distance rings established by safety reviews that give pilots more warning it they didn’t read “the memo”.

      On the regulatory side, that being inspection, training, safety and environmental I also support a NASA role more than a new agency. I would though carve out a very specific dept within NASA that would oversee commercial space flight and make it answerable to the NASA chair. there can be communication at the higher levels to coordinate areas of responsibility, but it bugs the hell out of me that the FAA is holding up real commercial space progress, because of a environmental review. I don’t feel the FAA is well equipped to make findings as it relates to these new “space ports” since their agenda and that of NASA will differ.

  9. Im always amazed by he number of people who actually believe that a group of over paid, appointed bureaucrats can actually manage and/or oversee ANYTHING better that those who stand to lose and reap the most from a failure or successful outcome.

  10. Last time I looked, space did not belong to the USA.
    Strangely enough most of the regulatory functions mentioned are already covered in parts by the various parts of the ESA (European Space Agency).
    It will make sense to join them and then see about getting the other players, (Japan, China and India) in line.
    But of course that will mean the USA will have to move away from being isolationist.

    • Note that I mentioned “If the USA takes this position, it can be copied throughout the world.” HARDLY an airspace grab–let each country control its airspace up to an arbitrary and agreed-upon altitude–establish launch and recovery corridors. Most developed countries already have a form of ATC–radar, controllers, etc. and can issue the Temporary Flight Restrictions for a launch or recovery.

      Above that is Space. What IS a problem is the proliferation of “Space Junk”–dead satellites, the foolish blowing up a rocket by the Chinese (resulting in 23,000 softball-size or larger pieces of detritus capable of downing a satellite). NASA already tracks these–don’t know if any other country does that.

  11. Why even pretend for just a second that ANY space regulation is enforceable?

    The pentagon bureaucrats have finally made public that there is unidentified craft that they know absolutely nothing about but they’re going to regulate them??? With what, their eVTOL unicorns?

    These ignorant power-grabbing politicians de-funded the police on earth, now want to send the police into space….. another grossly ridiculous waste of Bitcoin. ):