SpaceX cautions on launch regulation that outpaces innovation

Darrell Etherington

During the Federal Aviation Administration's (FAA) 23rd annual Commercial Space Transportation Conference in Washington, D.C., one panel focused on the changing regulatory environment when it comes to private launch activities, and how those are integrated into existing rules and practices for managing commercial air transportation. Panelist Caryn Schenewerk, SpaceX senior counsel and senior director of space flight policy, emphasized that while the company always does the utmost to ensure safety in everything it does, the company also wants to focus on the actual state of the industry today and how it needs to grow as various partners work to establish new rules for the growing commercial launch sector.

"When aviation started, the Wright brothers weren't flying over major populated cities," Schenewerk pointed out. "They were outside Paris in an unpopulated field, and they were at Kitty Hawk on unpopulated beaches. And they were in Ohio in unpopulated areas."

Schenewerk was directly addressing comments made by other panelists, and specifically ALPA Aviation Safety Chair Steve Jangelis, that suggested the emerging commercial launch industries may be looking far ahead to when they're launching from spaceports located near populated areas, and launching with much more frequency than they are today. In general, Jangelis was advocating for laying the groundwork now for high levels of cooperation and integration between aviation traffic management and rocket launch operators.

Schenewerk was reluctant to concede any kind of direct equivalency between the commercial air transportation industry and the space launch sector, given their relative dissimilarity.

She noted that in terms of sheer volume, there's a massive difference, with roughly 40 to 50 launches set for 2020 compared to millions of flights for commercial air. Airlines also use essentially the same small handful of airframes from suppliers like Boeing and Airbus, while each launch company has their own, very different vehicle with different conditions for launch and flight. Overall, she suggested then that anticipating some potential future state where the industries were more similar could result in stifling progress toward that ultimate goal.

"I hope we get to that million launches at some point, but when we are at that point, it's going to be because we worked our way up the safety trajectory in a way that allows us to operate that way," Schenewerk said. "Today, SpaceX can't fly from a spaceport in the middle of the country, because we won't get through the safety approval. We literally will not be licensed by the FAA to operate from that site, because we will then be flying over large populations of people -- and we aren't at that level of reliability and safety in this industry to fly over large populations of people with these kinds of rockets. Could we get there someday? Yeah, we can get there someday when we've had a million flights, and a million prove-outs of our capability, when we have such repeatability that we're in that level."

Ultimately, Schenewerk's comments and Jangelis' responses illustrate that there are still a lot of places where younger companies and emerging technologies like reusable rocket launches are conflicting with the views of more established industries and players operating in some shared spaces.

FAA Administrator Steve Dickson also addressed the agency's ongoing work to establish launch rules, which were released as a draft last year and which Dickson said will likely be finalized sometime this fall, once the FAA has incorporated industry comments and feedback.

"Let's think about that big vision, that big day when lots of things are happening," Schenewerk said. "But let's also not yell at our kid for not being able to fly an airplane when they can barely walk -- and I think that's where we are right now: We're still figuring out how to walk and run in this industry."