The top two lawmakers on the US Senate’s space and science subcommittee are pushing federal regulators to accelerate the approval of commercial space launches, arguing that the current pace could cost the United States its edge in the new space race.
In a letter sent last week to the head of the Federal Aviation Administration’s commercial spaceflight office, Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Eric Schmitt implored FAA associate administrator Kelvin Coleman to “act now” to eliminate red tape and reduce delays in processing launch and return to Earth — or reentry — licenses.
“As the pace of launches from U.S. commercial spaceflight companies increases and China’s state-backed space industry continues to grow, it is imperative that the processes at the FAA and other federal agencies adapt to keep pace with American innovation as well as adversarial threats in space,” the senators wrote in a letter dated November 14.
‘Keeping pace with industry demand’
The FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation is responsible for protecting public safety while simultaneously greenlighting a growing number of commercial space launches, which have quadrupled in just four years. The FAA has already licensed 104 launches this year, compared to 26 launches in 2019.
“Keeping pace with industry demand is a priority and is important for several reasons, including meeting our national security and civil exploration needs,” an FAA spokesperson told CNN in a statement on Tuesday. “We’re working diligently to attract, hire and retain additional staff.”
In their letter, the senators named NASA’s commercial partners involved in the agency’s flagship human spaceflight program and urged Coleman to fast-track “high priority missions such as returning Americans to the moon.”
Elon Musk’s SpaceX is responsible for developing the lunar lander — called Starship — that will ferry astronauts to the surface of the moon for the first time since the Apollo program. During a hearing last month before the Senate space and science subcommittee, a top SpaceX executive accused government regulators of stifling the company’s progress on Starship, a pivotal part of NASA’s Artemis program and the most powerful rocket ever built.
“It’s a shame when our hardware is ready to fly, and we’re not able to go fly because of regulations or review,” said William Gerstenmaier, SpaceX’s vice president for build and reliability, noting that the company had been ready for more than a month to launch the next Starship test flight. “Licensing, including environmental (review), often takes longer than rocket development. This should never happen. And it’s only getting worse.”
Race to the moon
The remarks came as SpaceX was the subject of a lengthy environmental review by the US Fish and Wildlife Service and a safety review by the FAA after the company’s first test flight of its massive moon rocket exploded about four minutes after lifting off in April. Regulators gave SpaceX the green light to proceed last week, and the company completed a partially successful second test flight on Saturday.
In the letter dated the day before the FAA granted the launch license for Starship’s second test flight, Chairwoman Sinema, an independent from Arizona, and Senator Schmitt of Missouri, the top Republican on the subcommittee, told Coleman they were “troubled” by witnesses saying regulatory delays could enable China to continue to close the once-wide gap between itself and the US in space. Beijing is leading a parallel effort to NASA’s Artemis program by attempting to land Chinese astronauts on the same region of the moon and at roughly the same time.
“It is no secret that the United States is in a space race with China — our chief economic and military adversary. We cannot be our own worst enemy when it comes to beating China to the moon and Mars,” Schmitt told CNN.
The senators are now asking Coleman to respond to several questions, including what additional resources he may need to accelerate the launch licensing process, by November 28.
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