Belt Tightening At FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation

Last week the House Appropriations Committee released its draft bill for funding of Transportation, Housing and Urban Development. Of particular note is the appropriation for the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST). As Marcia Smith observes, the $13 million set forth by the Committee is half of what agency director George Nield requested back in May:

The request was 74 percent higher than what it had received for FY2010 and FY2011… Nield said at the hearing that he expected a ten-fold increase in the number of commercial launches and pointed to new initiatives such as the Commercial Spaceflight Technical Center at Kennedy Space Center, FL and a “prize” program.

The news was greeted with skepticism in some quarters, with predictions of permit and license delays as a consequence of the trim-down. Alternatively, Behind the Black’s Robert Zimmerman sees this as a positive sign:

This is good, to my mind. Cutting their budget will pull the teeth from their regulatory efforts. As the commercial space industry ramps up, the political pressure on this office to approve permits will increase, and if they are short of cash they will have no choice but to keep things simple and say yes.

It remains to be seen what the ramifications will be from this news. A statutory provision limiting the scope of FAA-AST rulemaking is set to expire in 2012, which means the agency could be poised to implement a whole host of measures directly affecting the burgeoning manned commercial spaceflight market. The House version of this year’s FAA Air Transportation Modernization and Safety Improvement Act contained a provision that would extend the limitation window an additional eight years from “the first licensed launch of a space flight participant,” however the version currently engrossed in the Senate contains no such extension.

Given the current quagmire facing NASA, the rapid development seen in the private space sector, and the uncertainty regarding the FAA-AST’s future regulatory plans, this budgetary restriction may help narrow the agency’s focus to ensuring a streamlined licensing process for commercial operators, rather than placing greater emphasis on regulatory efforts that could hamper future commercial space developments.