A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket with the Psyche spacecraft launches from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 13, 2023.
Chandan Khanna | AFP | Getty Images
With the pace of rocket launches accelerating, and competition from China rising, executives from top U.S. space companies on Wednesday urged senators to improve the Federal Aviation Administration’s regulatory and licensing processes.
“We’ve entered an inflection point, with incredible innovation in commercial space launch. The criticality is especially true in the face of strategic competition from state actors like China,” SpaceX Vice President of Build and Flight Reliability Bill Gerstenmaier said during his testimony. “SpaceX is under contract with NASA to use Starship to land American astronauts on the moon before China does.”
The Senate Subcommittee on Space and Science heard from a trio of company representatives from SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic, as well as a pair of industry experts.
Gerstenmaier emphasized that the FAA’s commercial space office “needs at least twice the resources that they have today” for licensing rocket launches. While he acknowledged the FAA is “critical to enabling safe space transportation,” Gerstenmaier added that the industry is “at a breaking point.”
“The FAA has neither the resources nor the flexibility to implement its regulatory obligations,” Gerstenmaier said.
Although the hearing largely focused on the FAA’s role in the space industry, spokespeople for the Senate committee and the FAA confirmed that the regulator was not invited to testify.
“Keeping pace with industry demand is a priority and is important for several reasons, including meeting our national security and civil exploration needs. We’re working diligently to attract, hire and retain additional staff,” an FAA spokesperson told CNBC in a statement.
Sign up here to receive weekly editions of CNBC’s Investing in Space newsletter.
The other four panelists’ testimonies largely echoed SpaceX’s viewpoint on the need to bolster the FAA’s ranks and speed up the process of approving rocket launches. Phil Joyce, Blue Origin senior vice president of New Shepard, said the FAA “is struggling to keep pace” with the industry “and needs more funding to deal with the increase in launches.”
Likewise, industry expert Caryn Schenewerk, a former leader at SpaceX and Relativity Space, said that the FAA’s recent changes have yet to “streamline licensing reviews” and instead have “proven more cumbersome and costly.”
Wayne Monteith — a retired Air Force brigadier general who also led the FAA’s space office — said that Congress should consider consolidating space regulations.
“I believe a more efficient one stop shop approach to authorizing and licensing space activities is necessary,” Monteith said.
Crew members from Italy hug each other after their return from Virgin Galactic’s rocket plane first commercial flight to the edge of space, at the Spaceport America facility, in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, U.S., June 29, 2023.
Jose Luis Gonzalez | Reuters
But while companies want to see the FAA move faster in licensing rocket launches for uncrewed missions that most often carry satellites, human spaceflights are a different story.
The executives urged senators to extend a “learning period” that limits the FAA’s regulation largely to protecting the public.
That period is set to expire in January, but witnesses on Wednesday were unanimous in their belief that the FAA shouldn’t add new regulations on flying people to space.
“The commercial human spaceflight industry is relatively new. Until recently, human spaceflight has primarily been in the domain of governments and access to space for humans was largely reserved for those in the national astronaut corps,” said Sirisha Bandla, a Virgin Galactic astronaut and vice president of Government Affairs and Research.
“There are only three companies currently carrying humans to space, and it would be premature to base occupant safety regulations on this extremely small set of data at this time,” Bandla added in her testimony.