Space Traffic Control to FAAout of this world Proposal?

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The Obama Administration and some Members of Congress are considering adding the responsibility of managing space traffic and heading off collisions between commercial satellites to the FAA. One must assume that the proposed move of this authority from Air Force Space Command and U.S. Strategic Command is because the FAA is underworked and because the military is not good at regulating commercial use of space?

A quick perusal of the FAA Organizational Chart (MS Word, PDF) would make it clear that it does not lack for breadth or depth of tasks:

  • Air traffic
    • Safety
    • Capacity
    • Design of airspace
    • Equipment maintenance
    • Implementation of prohibited or special airspace for security reasons
    • Training
    • Staffing
  • Aviation Safety
    • Airlines – large passenger, commuter, charter, cargo
      • Domestic
      • International
      • Implementation of SMS
    • Safety
    • Manuals
    • Training
    • Passenger/cabin safety
  • Airframe, powerplant and avionics manufacturer certifications
    • Domestic
    • International
    • Implementation of SMS
  • Large commercial aircraft
  • General aviation aircraft
  • Ultra-lights
  • Gliders and hang gliders
  • Hot air balloons, airships and statics
  • UASs
  • General aviation
    • Pilots
    • Operations/safety
  • Pilots
    • Qualifications
    • Training
    • Safety
  • Maintenance
    • Implementation of SMS
  • By airlines
  • By GA mechanics/pilots
  • By Repair stations
  • Air Traffic—oversight of its own ATO’s safety
  • Accident investigation
  • Rule-making—the FAA has ~1,500 pages of regulations PLUS handbooks, orders, ADs, ACs, SAFOs, etc.
  • Surveillance of Civil Aviation Authorities and their airlines
    • Support US Staff at ICAO
  • NextGen
    • Research of future technology
    • Design –individual and interconnections systems
    • Transition from ground-based radars to satellite GPS systems
    • Navigation, separation, flow, communications, maintenance
    • Acquisition of these systems
    • Implementation of these systems
    • Defining the business cases for each
  • Airports
    • Domestic
    • International
    • Implementation of SMS
  • Safe operations
  • Safe Design
  • AIP grant program
  • Economic and social programs
  • Environmental issues for airports, particularly any new facilities
  • International and Environmental
    • Dealing with sovereigns around the world and multi-national organizations (i.e. ICAO, EU, etc.)
    • Technical support to other CAAs
    • Establishing environmental standards for aviation noise, emissions, effluents, etc.
    • Working with ICAO on those standards
  • Commercial Space Transportation

FAA Space Traffic ControlAnd oh, by the way, as these responsibilities have accreted and grown in significance, the work is being done by a personnel account which has been decreased by Congress consistently for more than three decades.

An even superficial familiarity with the trade press would signal, at a minimum, that the existing staff is overwhelmed by this workload. The hue and cry has resounded about the FAA’s inability to issue new Part 23 standards, new medical criteria for GA pilots, the recommendations of various committees, the aforementioned UAS rules, NextGen and on and on and on… The criticisms uttered by the OIG and the GAO have found fault with the FAA’s slowness that it is possible that the typing keys in both organizations have had to replace the letters—d…e…l…a…y…—on their keyboards several times.

The premise that moving the control of space to the FAA will necessarily expedite the regulatory processes is not well substantiated by the facts.

A second rationale for this change is that the FAA would be better at regulating ATC in space, that they would be more willing to help these commercial ventures. Evidentially, the Air Force Space Command is too given to favor defense and security issues when they are in potential conflict with present and future requirements.

One need only look at the national aviation charts and see the Military Operations Areas dedicated, without question, to the Air Force, Navy, Army and Coast Guard. For good reasons, the ATO has deferred to the services when it is asserted that blocks of airspace is needed for their mission. That tendency is not likely to change.

Perhaps the proponents for this transfer of jurisdiction, from the armed forces to civilian staff, base their expectations of improved processes on the recent history of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation organization (AST). One wonders whether such expedited processing will continue post the Virgin Galactic “SpaceShipTwo” disaster.

Arbitrating between commercial uses of geosynchronous or geostationary positions is a different, more contentious process. Add to that claims by two users of a single point or a slot in space, and the decision-making becomes more difficult. The military demands for its missions will test the ability of the AST team to handle such disputes. Finally, the calculations of the paths of satellites, their degradation and the analysis of future collisions involve complex mathematics.

All of these complexities go exponential when the FAA Space Traffic Control must deal with the threat of space debris. As Buzz Lightyear would cry, that’s “Infinity and beyond” in its magnitude.

If it is essential to get Space Control out of the Pentagon, Congress must think carefully about the skills, technical talents and RESOURCES which should accompany such a change.


ARTICLE: Washington Weighs an FAA Role in Managing Space Traffic

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