June 16, 2021

Chairs DeFazio, Larsen Statements from Hearing on the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight

Washington, D.C. — The following are opening remarks, as prepared for delivery, from Chair of the House Committee on Transportation and Infrastructure Peter DeFazio (D-OR) and Chair of the Subcommittee on Aviation Rick Larsen (D-WA) during today’s hearing titled, “Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight.” Videos of DeFazio and Larsen’s opening statements are here and here. More information on the hearing can be found here.

Chair DeFazio:

Thank you, Chair Larsen and Ranking Member Graves, for calling today’s hearing to hear from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and stakeholders on the growing commercial space industry and the government’s regulation of that industry, or lack thereof.

I will make just three main points, and I would like to hear the witnesses’ views on each of these: the imperative for better integration of launches and reentries into the air traffic system; the significant need for thoughtful regulation of this blossoming, largely-unregulated industry; and a commitment to reducing the environmental damage associated with rocket launches.

First, I want to hear what the FAA and the industry are doing to minimize the disruption to the air traffic system associated with commercial space launches and reentries. In fiscal year 2017 alone, the FAA re-routed 1,200 flights, adding in the aggregate 39,000 track miles to their routes, just to accommodate the commercial space industry’s needs.

I will give the FAA credit for being so conservative when determining how much airspace to block off and for how long. Of course, safety is never subject to negotiation or compromise, and the FAA has rightly given commercial space operations a wide berth to protect the safety of aircraft in flight.

However, I understand that in May 2020, the FAA finally published the long overdue “concept of operations” that details the vision to better integrate launch and reentry vehicles as they transition through the air traffic control system. I also understand that the FAA is working on a system called the Space Data Integrator that will allow for more narrowly tailored airspace closures and designations of hazard areas, minimizing the disruptions caused by commercial space activity. I would like an update from our government witnesses on the status of deployment of those initiatives so we can ensure that millionaires and billionaires flying to space for a photo-op in the future won’t inconvenience thousands if not millions of airline passengers.

Second, it’s time to end the FAA’s “dual mandate” of both regulating and promoting the commercial space industry. It is an anachronism, a paradox, and no serious safety regulator can regulate and promote at the same time. A regulator regulates. The FAA used to have a similar dual mandate to promote and regulate the airline industry. I recognized for years that the FAA’s promotion and regulation of an industry could not coexist, and I tried for years to convince my colleagues in Congress to repeal the promotion authority. Tragically in 1996, ValuJet flight 592 went down in the Everglades, and only after that horrible tragedy were my efforts vindicated, and I championed a provision in the FAA reauthorization that year that ended the dual mandate with respect to the aviation industry.

I intend to introduce legislation soon that ends the FAA’s dual mandate with respect to commercial space transportation. It’s time for the FAA to assume the role of a thoughtful, unbiased regulator, and leave promotion of the industry to others.

I would also note that Congress, with the agreement of successive presidential administrations and the industry, has prohibited the FAA from regulating the design or operation of launch vehicles to protect the health and safety of passengers and crew on board space vehicles. In 2015, the moratorium—or "learning period"—on FAA regulation was extended to 2023. That means that despite commercial human spaceflight and space tourism soon expected to become emerging markets, the FAA's hands will be tied: the agency will be unable to fully regulate for the safety of those who participate.

I have serious reservations and concerns about the discussion in some parts of the industry to extend the moratorium yet again.

Finally, I want to talk about black carbon and other environmental effects of rocket launches. Black carbon is soot primarily emitted from kerosene-fueled rocket engines like Space-X’s Falcon 9 or United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V and can have particularly deleterious effects on the earth’s ozone layer. These emissions remain in the upper stratosphere for 3 to 5 years, so the destructive effects aren’t short-term.

Although I recognize that rocket launches are currently responsible for only 1 percent of the total ozone depletion attributed to human causes, each percentage point adds up, and the industry is growing and by some estimates may expand by tenfold in the coming years.

Similarly, some commercial space launch vehicles emit a stunning amount of carbon dioxide. For instance, a Space-X Falcon Heavy rocket burns about 400 metric tons of kerosene and emits more carbon dioxide in a few minutes than an average car would in more than two centuries.

Other vehicles are less intrusive on the environment because they don’t require rockets to leave the atmosphere. For example, one flight of a Virgin Galactic SpaceShip2 Launch?a vehicle that is designed to launch customers to the low stratum of space?is expected to produce the same amount of carbon dioxide as a business class seat returning from London to New York on a commercial airliner. Virgin Galactic’s president of space missions and safety, Mr. Mike Moses, is with us today, so perhaps he can speak more to the environmental advantages of this type of launch vehicle.

More broadly, I want to hear today from our industry stakeholders on what their companies are doing to address the environmental effects of commercial space operations. Because those effects must be addressed, and now.

These are my chief concerns about the trajectory of this growing industry. It’s time for the FAA to minimize the disruption caused by launches and reentries, for the regulator to regulate, and for Congress, the executive branch, and the industry to address the measurable—and increasing—environmental effects of space launches.

Again, I thank Chair Larsen and Ranking Member Graves for holding today’s hearing, and I look forward to hearing from our witnesses.

Chair Larsen:

Good afternoon and welcome to today’s witnesses joining the Aviation Subcommittee’s hearing titled “Starships and Stripes Forever – An Examination of the FAA’s Role in the Future of Spaceflight.”

This is an overdue discussion on the future of the U.S. launch and spaceflight industry and the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) role in oversight of the industry.

Earlier this year, NASA celebrated 60 years since astronaut Alan Shepard made the first U.S. piloted spaceflight in the Mercury Freedom 7 spacecraft.

Since then, space launches in the National Airspace System (NAS) has skyrocketed.

The rigorous oversight work done by this subcommittee helps guarantee U.S. aviation and aerospace remains the global gold standard in safety by identifying issues of concern—current and anticipated—and how Congress, the FAA, and industry and labor stakeholders can work together to address these issues.

On our first panel are representatives from the FAA and the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to discuss the status of federal regulation and oversight of the commercial space industry, necessary improvements and the hurdles the FAA faces in carrying out its mission to provide the safest and most efficient aviation system in the world.

The second panel of witnesses will help the subcommittee better understand how the industry navigates the current regulatory landscape for commercial spaceflight and what is needed in the future.

One aspect I would like to make note of is that of diversity.

As Chair and as a Member of Congress, I have made improving diversity in the U.S. aerospace industry a priority.

It is important subcommittee hearings have diverse backgrounds, views and perspectives at the table.

However, in many cases, the U.S. transportation workforce lacks the diversity that reflects the true diversity of this country.

Unfortunately, the aerospace sector is no different. A recent survey of the Aerospace and Defense industry found that the number of women in the industry is around 24 percent, while only 6 percent of respondents identified as a Person of Color and just less than 8 percent identified as Hispanic or Latino.

As the industry works to increase the diversity of its workforce, I look forward to the day when it is similarly reflected in its leadership.

Until then, I will continue to work with stakeholders to find new ways for underrepresented groups to participate in the discussion and this industry.

Once the exclusive purview of the federal government, space launches in the United States are a growing commercial industry.

With this evolving dynamic has come an accompanying change in the role of the federal government.

FAA is now tasked with overseeing not only the NAS and launches that may impact the NAS, but also regulations related to launch and spaceport licensing and safety regulations.

I am pleased to have Mr. Wayne R. Monteith, FAA’s Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation, here today to discuss these issues as well as FAA’s vision for this industry.

I am also glad to have Ms. Heather Krause, Director of Physical Infrastructure at the GAO here today.

Ms. Krause will provide a wealth of knowledge on GAO’s research done on this topic, as well as recommendations for both FAA and the industry.

The space launches that will be discussed in this hearing occur at various kinds of launch facilities—whether vertical or horizontal—and are designed to meet different commercial needs—such as launching a GPS satellite into GEO stationary orbit or a new telescope to explore space.

With that in mind, this subcommittee must consider the depth and breadth of the industry being regulated.

One perspective that must be heard is that of existing legacy launch service providers. Their experience surrounding long standing safety requirements and existing standards is extremely helpful in this conversation.

That is why I am pleased to have Mr. Salvatore “Tory” Bruno, President and CEO of United Launch Alliance (ULA) here today.

Mr. Bruno will be able to share insights as to the relationship between ULA and the FAA, and what is needed for the future of the commercial space industry.

I look forward to hearing more about what is needed from the FAA to support effective, yet efficient launch and spaceport licensing is vital to the success of the industry.

Also important in this discussion is what infrastructure investments are needed to continue the safe operation and continued growth of the commercial space industry.

I look forward to hearing from Mr. Frank DiBello, President and CEO of Space Florida, for his evaluation of the present and future of FAA launch and spaceport regulations.

FAA is still tasked with maintaining and safeguarding the NAS, in addition to its work on commercial space launches.

Recent figures indicate that the airline industry and passenger travel are rebounding from the COVID-19 pandemic.

The Transportation Security Administration (TSA) screened 2 million travelers at airport checkpoints on Friday, June 11—the most since March 2020.

Consequently, it is important to ask how to fully and safely integrate growing airspace operations, like commercial space launches, with existing airspace users.

The Air Line Pilots Association (ALPA) is a thought leader in this area. I am glad to welcome Captain Joe DePete, President of ALPA, to hear that perspective.

The perspective of new entrants into the commercial space operations field also play a key role in this discussion.

Companies still in the prototyping or design phase of operations view the regulatory landscape in a different light.

I am happy to welcome Mr. Mike Moses, President of Space Missions and Safety of Virgin Galactic, to hear their unique priorities.

As nascent operations and technologies are integrated into the complex national airspace system, the safety of all who fly and those on the ground remain the top priority.

Congress, the Biden administration and the commercial space industry and workforce must work together as we embark on the next chapter of U.S. aerospace.

Thank you again to today’s witnesses. I look forward to our discussion.