FAA extends comment period on commercial launch regulations

Space

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is extending a comment period on an overhaul of commercial launch regulations as some in industry seek more discussions with the agency on the proposed revisions.

In a speech at a May 30 meeting of the FAA’s Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) here, Wayne Monteith, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said the agency was extending a deadline for public comment from June 14 to July 30.

That move comes after requests by many, but not all, companies in the commercial launch industry and related organizations, who had argued the original 60-day comment period for the notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on streamlining launch regulations wasn’t sufficient to thoroughly review draft regulations nearly 580 pages long, along with other FAA circulars incorporated by reference.

“We’ve heard your concerns about the NPRM comment period being too short,” Monteith said, noting that issue was raised in the first 57 comments the agency had received on the proposed rules.

He argued that, counting the time a draft rule was published on the FAA’s website March 26 prior to its formal publication in the Federal Register April 15, starting that original 60-day comment period, industry will now have more than 120 days to review the proposal. “We are now looking forward to receiving your substantive comments.”

The proposed rules are intended to streamline the regulatory process for commercial launches and reentries, including a move from prescriptive to performance-based regulations intended to give companies more flexibility in how they meet safety standards. It’s also intended to allow companies to use the same license for a launch vehicle at multiple sites, rather than obtain a separate license for each launch site.

At the COMSTAC meeting, though, some industry representatives pushed for other ways to shape the proposed rules, like reconvening an aviation rulemaking committee, or ARC, that developed its own proposals for revised regulations for the FAA.

“What possibilities do you see going forward, either during or after the comment period, which would allow a little more, if not dialogue, at least more of an exchange of information rather than just receiving written comments?” asked Michael Lopez-Alegria, vice-chair of COMSTAC, during a discussion after Monteith’s speech at the meeting.

Monteith said the FAA was restricted by “very direct rules” it must follow as part of the rulemaking process that limits alternative inputs or discussions. “There’s nothing preventing the ARC members from convening on their own and coming up with a comment set of suggestions” for the FAA about the proposed rule, he said.

The issue came up later in the meeting when COMSTAC members debated a recommendation asking the FAA to engage with industry either through the committee or the ARC, such as a formal public meeting that would allow industry and the FAA to discuss specific issues with the proposed rule.

Caryn Schenewerk, senior counsel at SpaceX, noted in that discussion that she and representatives of other launch companies met recently to discuss the regulations, but still had questions about them. “It makes it very hard for us to provide substantive comment and feedback,” she said. “A public forum would offer an opportunity to have some sort of dialogue” to resolve those uncertainties.

FAA officials though, argued against such a forum. One issue is that, even with the extension of the public comment period, there may not be enough time to organize and hold that forum with the required advance public notice. Another was a concern it could become what Monteith called “rulemaking by negotiation” that would further delay the process.

“It opens us up to extensive delays if someone does not get their negotiated settlement in,” he said. “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of good enough.”

Some in industry were willing to wait a little longer in order to ensure they’re able to properly provide comment on the regulations, while acknowledging that they had previously been pushing the FAA to revise decades-old rules. “If we can push to the right to get it done right, I would be willing to lean forward on that,” said Eric Stallmer, president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation.

Not everyone on COMSTAC, though, agreed. “The timeline is fine. We’ve reviewed the NPRM and think the job was well done,” said Robbie Sabathier, vice president of Washington operations for United Launch Alliance. “I don’t know what all the problems are, but I know COMSTAC is divided on this.”

Monteith said that, even before the decision to extend the comment period, the FAA was going to miss a goal of publishing the final rule by the end of the year, in part because of the five-week partial government shutdown that delayed the release of the rule from Feb. 1 to mid-April. “Structurally, there’s no way to get there,” he said of that end-of-year deadline, but did not give a new date.

Monteith’s office is taking other steps to prepare for the revised regulations. That includes a reorganization announced by Elaine Chao, secretary of transportation, in an April 24 speech. That reorganization, he said, will ensure the office is ready once the new rules, with an emphasis on performance-based regulations, take effect.

“We will be reorganized before the end of the year with new staff that has the right skill sets so that we have some period, multiple months, to prepare for the new rule,” he said, “the goal being that we are not the impediment to progress when the new rule is codified.”

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