FAA publishes streamlined commercial launch regulations

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration released Oct. 15 the final version of updated commercial launch and reentry regulations, although those in industry say the regulatory reform process is far from over.

The FAA released the final version of its Streamlined Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements, or SLR2, regulations on its website, with formal publication in the Federal Register expected in the near future. The regulations will take effect 90 days after publication in the Federal Register.

The final rule is the culmination of a multi-year effort by both the FAA and the commercial launch industry to update regulations dating back decades that companies argued had not kept pace with the growth of the industry and innovations like reusable vehicles. The White House instructed the FAA’s parent agency, the Department of Transportation, to update the rules in Space Policy Directive 2 in 2018, and the FAA published a draft rule in March 2019.

“The old regulations were woefully out of date and really out of step. Industry told us that loud and clear,” FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said in an online event to announce the new regulations. He cited as one example complaints by SpaceX that it took “heroics” in the regulatory process to move Falcon 9 launches between the company’s two launch pads in Florida.

One aspect of the new regulations highlighted in the event addresses that specific issue. Companies can now receive a single license that covers multiple launchers of the same vehicle from different launch sites.

The new rules, FAA officials said, are intended to allow it to better handle the growing number of launches. Wayne Monteith, the FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, noted that the FAA has supported three licensed launches — one each by Blue Origin, Northrop Grumman and SpaceX — since the current fiscal year began Oct. 1. “That’s the same number of launches that we supported in both fiscal year 2010 and fiscal year 2011,” he said. “We’re on tap for a record year and there’s ample reason to believe that the numbers will only continue to climb.”

The FAA also emphasized that the new rules are intended to be “performance-based” rather than prescriptive, giving launch companies the flexibility to propose alternative ways to meet safety requirements. “Instead of the FAA dictating how to reach the target, an applicant or the industry now has the ability to develop their own ways and processes to reach that,” Monteith said.

The industry embraced, somewhat cautiously, the new regulations. “We recognize the tremendous effort involved in developing and vetting updates to this complex regulation and look forward to our ongoing work with the FAA to assure a robust and safe commercial launch industry,” Mary Lynne Dittmar, president and chief executive of the Coalition for Deep Space Exploration, said in a statement.

One reason for that caution is that the industry had not had a chance to see the final rule, contained in a document 785 pages long, prior to its release. Mike French, vice