A new space race officially started this week when Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic performed their first fully-crewed flights to orbit. SpaceX was the first aerospace company to return human spaceflight capabilities to the United States in 2020. Ever since, it has launched three crewed flights to the International Space Station from American soil. Now, all companies are competing in the space tourism sector. SpaceX already has contracts to launch NASA astronauts to ISS on rotational basis and has multiple commercial flight contracts lined up, the first all-civilian flight aboard Falcon 9/Crew Dragon is scheduled for September. Simultaneously, SpaceX is developing its next-generation launch vehicle, Starship, in South Texas. Blue Origin also has a launch facility in Texas and Virgin Galactic in the neighboring state of New Mexico. All companies plan multiple crewed missions for 2022.
To keep up with the increasing launch pace, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced on Monday, July 19, that it opened a new ‘space safety’ office in Houston, Texas, to oversee space operations that take place in Texas and New Mexico. “From this location, FAA inspectors will be able to more effectively and efficiently monitor the ongoing testing programs and commercial space tourism operations of SpaceX and Blue Origin in Texas and Virgin Galactic in New Mexico, along with others in the region,” FAA representatives said in a press release. “Keeping the public safe as the pace of commercial space operations increases requires the FAA to adapt, be agile, and remain vigilant,” said Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator of commercial space transportation. “The Houston field office will help us achieve these important goals.”
“This is the latest action the FAA is taking to keep pace with the increasing frequency of commercial space launch and reentry activities. The FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation also is increasing its safety inspection staff, reorganized the office to improve efficiency and accountability, and established an Office of Spaceports,” the FAA stated. The Administration says it licensed 41 commercial space launches and vehicle reentries in 2020 and that this year the launches can exceed 60 to 70. The Administration also said that it started to use a new system, a “Space Data Integrator capability that can track a space launch or reentry vehicle in near-real time as it travels through the National Airspace System. This new capability increases safety for all airspace users and assists the FAA in efficiently managing air traffic during space operations.”
The FAA Texas office will be beneficial to keep up with aerospace companies licensing needs on a timely manner as well. The Administration said on Monday that it “streamlined and modernized its commercial space launch and reentry licensing regulations to allow the agency to spend more time on safety oversight and less on paperwork.” SpaceX has tested several Starship prototypes during high-altitude flights at Boca Chica Beach, Texas. In March, an FAA inspector who was tasked with overseeing SpaceX’s Starship flight test did not arrive on time because they had to travel to Texas from FAA headquarters, causing SpaceX to delay its testing. The new FAA office could enable inspectors to arrive on time to oversee testing operations without delaying SpaceX’s ambitious Starship development program. The company is currently preparing to conduct its first orbital flight test with its giant Super Heavy rocket, designed to propel Starship to orbit. They are building a massive launch tower that is still pending inspection/approval by the FAA. The company is also still pending an environmental review of their Starship launch site at Boca Chica Beach.
Featured Image Source: SpaceX / Virgin Galactic / Blue Origin