After Virgin Galactic and Blue Origin launched their first full passenger flights into space, the US Federal Aviation Administration shows that it takes space tourism seriously. The agency has announced that it will open a new center in Houston and deploy new technology to monitor commercial space missions from Texas and New Mexico.
Over the past century, the monitoring and control of air traffic around the globe has become more and more sophisticated. However, the huge, interconnected, international network of radar and control centers is designed to handle aircraft at subsonic speeds and relatively low altitudes. When it comes to rockets flying into space on suborbital or orbital trajectories, there is definitely room for improvement.
To cope with SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and Blue Origin’s space tourism and commercial testing programs, the FAA’s commercial space transportation office is opening a new spaceport office and increasing its staff to handle space travel. This year the agency estimates it could issue over 70 licenses for launches and re-entries.
Bureaucratic improvements aside, the FAA is introducing Space Data Integrator (SDI) capability that will incorporate space launch boosters and spacecraft tracking into the National Airspace System. The SDI receives and distributes launch and reentry data in real time to the national traffic flow management system network, rather than manually via the FAA Air Traffic Organization’s space operations team in Virginia.
With SDI, the FAA can track the position, altitude and speed of the vehicle, among other things. This will enable air traffic controllers and mission planners to react more quickly to incidents and to re-open the airspace for regular traffic as quickly as possible.
“To keep the public safe as the pace of commercial space operations accelerates, the FAA must adapt, be agile, and remain vigilant,” said Wayne Monteith, FAA assistant administrator for commercial space transportation. “The Houston office will help us achieve these important goals.”