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Space launches could increase (astronomically) in coastal airspace

AOPA wants the FAA to boldly go where it has not gone before to disclose information about the impact of commercial space launches on general aviation’s busiest flight routes.

Photo courtesy of NASA.

So far, details about skyrocketing numbers of launches and recoveries have seemed light-years away. Any countdown toward a major new commercial space initiative—as is now proposed to fly from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida—should not be go for launch without taking that one giant leap for safety, we asserted in comments on the proposal by space exploration venture SpaceX.

For an orbital overview of why GA pilots need to gain knowledge about space launches, consider that between 2015 and 2018, the number of commercial space launches through the airspace you fly in increased 400 percent. Several kinds of airspace with which you may not be familiar help keep aircraft safe from space launch hazards, as explained in our online fact sheet Airspace for Commercial Space Launches.

The importance of addressing such safety considerations publicly and in detail was the main thrust of AOPA’s comments to the FAA on the agency’s draft environmental assessment of new licensing sought by SpaceX, Elon Musk’s company that designs and manufactures advanced rockets and spacecraft, to increase the frequency of its Falcon rocket launches and Dragon spacecraft re-entries staged from Kennedy Space Center and Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Details were also lacking on another element of the plan that could have a drastic impact on GA: “Also, SpaceX is proposing to add a new Falcon 9 southern launch trajectory from Florida for payloads requiring polar orbits.”

For starters, the FAA must explain how increased spaceflights, re-entries, and a new launch trajectory will interact with civil aviation—and it is crucial that they do so without the imposition of additional temporary or permanent airspace restrictions, said Rune Duke, AOPA senior director of airspace, air traffic, and aviation security.

“The Draft EA’s assessment of the airspace impacts of these two proposed actions is totally insufficient. The FAA fails to clarify what the public can expect as far as airspace restrictions and what, if any, mitigations the FAA has planned,” he said in AOPA’s comments submitted March 16. “The FAA must clarify the foreseeable airspace impacts so that the public can be fully informed and offer substantive comments.”

The next area of concern is that the activity most heavily impacted by routine launches along a southern trajectory would be flights from the Florida east-coastal area through the Caribbean. The Florida coast, Duke noted, “is the home of many large flight training operations and general aviation airports. The impact of shutting down these operations, even if for just several days a year, would be an economic impact that the FAA must assess.”

For decades AOPA has discouraged normalizing the use of airspace constraints such as temporary fight restrictions to accommodate space launches—especially in light of industry-group studies recommending that space launches be “seamlessly” brought into the national airspace system.

But seamlessly incorporated is not how we would characterize the plan’s proposed use of letters of agreement (LOA) with SpaceX—an intrinsically obscure and inaccessible process—to define launch-operation parameters.

“The LOA process itself is opaque to other airspace users in that this document is negotiated directly between the FAA and the proponent with no external review or comment,” Duke wrote. “The LOA is also not publicly available for review after it is signed except through a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request.”

Once the FAA has clarified “the foreseeable airspace impacts,” the public should have another chance to address them in down-to-earth detail, he said.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: Advocacy, Airspace, Aviation Industry

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