Despite the understandable lull in current commercial aviation activity, anticipated increases in the frequency of space launches will soon require careful consideration for use of crowded airspace. These emerging ventures into low-Earth orbit offer exciting opportunities for business and science alike, but also present challenges.
A stark example of these inherent tradeoffs occurred in February 2018 when the Federal Aviation Administration shut down airline traffic for three hours from Cape Canaveral eastward 1,300 miles to accommodate a SpaceX Falcon Heavy ascent. The closure caused 563 flight delays, forcing planes and passengers to travel over 34,000 additional miles.
Throughout history, new industries have always presented tremendous potential for economic growth while simultaneously disrupting existing business norms. While space launches remain fairly limited in number today, expected increases in frequency will cause major interruption to airline flights. Notably, commercially licensed launches doubled from 2016 to 2018. This coincides with the predicted 50 percent rise in U.S. airline passengers over the next two decades, and an even greater rise in the numbers of remotely piloted aircraft systems and autonomous airborne vehicles.
One thing that ties all commercial users of airspace together is that each type of vehicle must transit from ground level to its apogee, whether an airliner achieving cruising altitude or a rocket reaching low-Earth orbit. While manageable today, future use of national airspace will require new procedures across all platforms. In all cases, shared information will be the key to deconflict in-flight risk while simultaneously ensuring the efficient use of airspace.
An indicator of the air traffic challenges ahead is the increasing number of commercial spaceports. To date, the FAA has authorized operation of 11 spaceports and more communities are expected to seek approval. This isn’t a surprise as the use of space-enabled communications, remote sensing, and location data is continuing to rise. Hardly any company today operates without space-enabled services. For example, position, navigation and timing information provided by satellites is widely used for many aspects of daily life. Demand is driving this growth. While there are less than two thousand active satellites in orbit today, the Federal Communications Commission licensed over thirteen thousand satellites for operation last year alone.
Increased launches, variation of flight paths, performance characteristics, and a multiplicity of geographical points of ascent are a challenge even for a low volume of traffic. To ensure safe coexistence, accurate and timely tracking of aircraft and space systems into a single operational picture is essential. However, the current regulatory regime for managing space and airline traffic won’t scale to accommodate this growth without causing undue impact upon the aviation industry and traveling public.
Fortunately, new approaches for information sharing and technology integration are emerging to include management of airspace with dynamic separation for diverse air and space missions, enhanced situational awareness for all operators at all altitudes of flight, flexible regulations that encourage innovation, and improved planning and coordination as new spaceport sites come online.
Regardless of the proposed solution, the collective goal must be the safe and efficient operation of platforms across all users with particular attention to crewed and passenger vehicles. Any potential interaction in flight must be managed within the acceptable risk margins agreeable to all participants, especially the traveling public.
The objective must be to define the structure of a mature regulatory environment that ensures safety at the increasing scales of users. But that future begins with finding a balanced way to manage the critical needs of the aviation community alongside commercial space launch operators. One sector should not benefit at the expense of the other.
Christian Zur is executive director of the procurement and space industry council at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Scott Kordella is director of space systems at Mitre Corporation. This article reflects the authors’ points of view, not corporate positions.