US FAA expands air traffic control to include commercial space tourism
Now that Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin have sent their first full passenger flights into space, the US Federal Aviation Administration is demonstrating that it's taking space tourism seriously. The agency has announced it is opening a new center in Houston and deploying new technology to monitor commercial space missions launching from Texas and New Mexico.
Over the past century, monitoring and controlling the flow of air traffic across the globe has become increasingly sophisticated. However, the vast interconnected, international web of radar and control centers is designed to deal with aircraft flying at subsonic speeds and relatively low altitudes. When it comes to rockets heading into space on suborbital or orbital trajectories, there is definitely room for improvement.
To deal with space tourism operations by SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin, as well as commercial test programs, the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation is opening a new Office of Spaceports and increasing its staff to deal with spacebound traffic. This year, the agency estimates that it could issue over 70 licenses for launches and reentries.
Aside from bureaucratic improvements, the FAA is rolling out Space Data Integrator (SDI) capacity that will merge the tracking of space launch boosters and spacecraft into the National Airspace System. The SDI receives and distributes launch and reentry data to the Traffic Flow Management System national network in real-time, instead of just manually through the FAA Air Traffic Organization Space Operations team in Virginia.
Using SDI, the FAA will be able to track vehicle position, altitude, and speed among other factors. This will allow controllers and mission planners to respond faster to incidents and release airspace back to regular traffic as soon as possible.
"Keeping the public safe as the pace of commercial space operations increases requires the FAA to adapt, be agile, and remain vigilant," says Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator of commercial space transportation. "The Houston field office will help us achieve these important goals."