Elon Musk just got the rocket-regulation overhaul he's wanted for years, but insiders worry the changes won't solve major headaches — and may create new ones

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The Federal Aviation Administration on Thursday unveiled a major overhaul of its commercial rocket-launching rules, the result of an effort to make it easier for companies like SpaceX, Blue Origin, Virgin Galactic, and others to fly missions without shorting safety.

The new regulations — called Part 450, or the “Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements” — come after years of industry complaints about what companies felt were duplicative, often onerous requirements. In essence, Part 450 represents the FAA’s attempt to rapidly update, simplify, and combine four disparate, decades-old sets of rules into one relatively flexible regulatory framework.

“Our country is headed towards a record year in commercial space, and our goal in finalizing this new regulation is to keep it that way,” Elaine Chao, US Secretary of Transportation, said in a prerecorded video during a Thursday briefing via Zoom. “In fact, this tempo is expected to increase to about 100 flights per year in the near future.”

The current US launch rate is about 30 missions per year, with an average of 2.5 attempts per launch (due to delays from issues like bad weather and technical glitches). That pace has already triggered plenty of scheduling conflicts and headaches among launch providers trying to fly from a few federal launch sites on the East and West Coasts, and also with secretive, billion-dollar military satellite operations.

The rate will only increase as existing companies get busier. For instance, SpaceX plans to pick up the pace of its Starlink internet satellite deployment and rapidly develop a fully reusable Starship launch system; Rocket Lab expects to start flying missions from US soil this year; and Blue Origin may soon debut its first orbital-class launcher, New Glenn. Meanwhile, more rocket companies are joining the fray, such as Relativity Space, and competing for launch ranges. 

All told, nearly two out of every three days could see a launch attempt once those 100 US flights per year start happening. To prepare for that bustling future, the Trump Administration completed the process in just 32 months. Insiders say it typically takes about seven to 10 years to rework the extensive, intricate, and legally binding documents.

“That is like light-speed for the rulemaking process under federal law in the United States,” Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s general counsel and chair of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents more than 70 companies in the industry, told Business Insider after the announcement.

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The FAA said Thursday its new rules, which will take effect in mid-January, should make it simpler and faster to fly rockets, especially for companies with a proven track record. For example, a company currently needs to have a launch license for each rocket and location. The new rules aim to provide one launch license for multiple locations.

The rules also treat essential commercial or government spaceflight employees more leniently than the general public when considering launch safety. With so many spaceflight companies packed into government spaceports and launchpads, current safety rules mean one company’s launch attempt can temporarily shut down the buildings and sensitive operations of another company.

However, not everyone is convinced the overhaul effort will really help the industry work more efficiently.

“The existing rules never delayed a launch or put a limit on the number of launches per year, though there’s certainly plenty of room for improvement. This document tries to improve the process and, I’m sure in some cases, will make it more clear and less ambiguous,” said one person with detailed knowledge of FAA regulations, rulemaking process, and history. The person, who’s known to Business Insider, asked not to be named to speak candidly and avoid retaliation.

“But I don’t believe it will make a significant difference,” they said.

‘It’s not going to make people happy, but that’s what the industry asked for’

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Since the FAA last overhauled its launch licensing and related regulations, in 2006, the industry has exploded with new companies, activity, and approaches, including orbital launches via SpaceX’s reusable rockets, airplane-dropped rockets from Virgin Orbit, suborbital space tourism plans by Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, and more.

With that growth came “a lot of pounding on the table” by players frustrated with FAA rules. SpaceX and its founder, Elon Musk, “pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed, pushed” for a launch license almost “immediately” and questioned the agency’s processes, the person familiar with the FAA processes said. (SpaceX did not acknowledge multiple queries for this story.)

That was “before people got to know each other and understand what the process was, and understand what [the companies] were trying to do and what the FAA wanted,” the person said. As the parties worked together, the person said, everyone came to understand how difficult it would be to quickly update existing regulations without skimping on safety.

When President Donald Trump took office in 2017, spaceflight companies pushed for a regulatory overhaul through the newly reformed National Space Council. SpaceX COO and president Gwynne Shotwell even appeared before the council to describe how it “took heroics” to “navigate the labyrinth of FAA regulations and licensing process,” agency administrator Steve Dickson said Thursday.

The industry got its wish for reform with the rollout of Space Policy Directive-2, which in May 2018 tapped multiple government entities for “streamlining regulations on commercial use of space.”

A dense, 149-page draft was published in April 2019, giving the industry only two months to make comments. Due to the rapid timelines called for by the president’s directive, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation spent most of its time figuring out how to thread procedural issues across multiple agencies, said a person affiliated with the Commercial Spaceflight Federation and known to Business Insider, who asked not to be named to speak candidly.

“They used only the absolutely necessary amount of time to actually engage on the substance with the stakeholders. And we tried to urge them over and over and over again to continue to involve industry,” the person at CSF said. “This isn’t a criticism, this isn’t blame. It’s just that we would have certainly been happier with a draft if they had spent a little bit more time talking with us.”

The person familiar with FAA’s rulemaking process said the industry should expect some disappointment from the rapid process.

“They put into motion this giant machine that takes a long time, is very complicated, and takes a lot of effort. The only thing that the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation has been working on for the last three years is this,” the person said. “It’s not going to make people happy, but that’s what the industry asked for — and so they’re getting it.”

In response to these and other comments that Business Insider shared with the FAA, a spokesperson said the new regulations are “a result of collaboration with industry and stakeholders to modernize FAA regulations and ensure the safety of all launch operations,” adding: “The agency considered all comments from industry and the public before completing the rule in less than two years.” (Industry insiders claimed the process took just under three years.)

It may take months for companies to understand what the new FAA rules mean

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The finalized regulations — which no one outside the agency saw until Thursday — span 785 pages. That doesn’t include another 210 pages spread across three circulars, which are handbook-like documents that address specific issues to help companies understand and meet the requirements.

Though the overhauled regulations will ostensibly help spaceflight companies, just how they play out in the real world remains to be seen. The intricacies of this sort of regulation can make all the difference; it’s possible some regulations designed to help one class of company could hinder another or introduce new headaches.

“It’s very, very easy to just get one little detail wrong and have the whole house of cards fall,” said Powers, the CSF chair.

And due to the volume of such details, it will take significant time to understand what Part 450 means for each spaceflight company’s operations and future.

“We’re hoping in a couple weeks we can ask really educated questions about this,” Powers said, noting the FAA has scheduled a three-day workshop for early November to unpack the particulars. “I’m sure it will probably take a few months for us to really get our arms around all of the details.”

The FAA is not done pushing paper, either. Many more hundreds of pages of guidance are expected among two dozen additional circulars. In the meantime, the industry is banking on Secretary Chao to establish an Aerospace Rulemaking Committee, which would give companies much more time with FAA officials to hammer out remaining issues and details.

“That’s the other piece that I think is probably missing that is really essential to these things being successful,” Powers said of the circulars, adding that she’s “cautiously optimistic” the new regulations will lead to tangible improvements across the industry.

In the future, the person familiar with FAA rulemaking said, it’d be better to “figure out a way to do slow and steady incremental improvement of these things, rather than trying to do a massive, complete rewrite of everything all at one time.”

“It’s taken three years to get to this point, a massive effort on the part of a lot of people, in government and industry, giving feedback and asking questions and so forth,” they said. “We’ll see if it makes any difference.”

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Source: businessinsider
Elon Musk just got the rocket-regulation overhaul he's wanted for years, but insiders worry the changes won't solve major headaches — and may create new ones