On Febriary 6, Elon Musk’s SpaceX launched its largest rocket into the blue Florida sky.
Onboard was “Starman,” a dummy strapped into the billionaire’s cherry red Tesla roadster. Minutes later, fans cheered as Mr Musk outdid himself by nailing a simultaneous landing of the Falcon Heavy’s boosters. It was arguably a turning point for the commercial space age.
Airlines were somewhat less thrilled. On that day, 563 flights were delayed and 62 extra miles added to flights in the southeast region of the US, according to Federal Aviation Administration data released by the Air Line Pilots Association, or Alpa.
America’s airspace is a finite resource, and the growth of commercial launches has US airlines worried. Whenever Mr Musk or one of his rivals sends up a spacecraft, the carriers which operate closer to the ground must avoid large swaths of territory and incur sizeable expenses.
Most of the commercial activity to date has been focused on Cape Canaveral, the Air Force post on Florida’s Atlantic coast, where Mr Musk’s Space Exploration Technologies and Jeff Bezos’ Blue Origin base their stellar operations. It is one of 22 active US launch sites, and a number of other locales - including Brownsville, Texas; Watkins, Colorado; and Camden County, Georgia - are pursuing new spaceport ventures to capitalise on commercial space activity.
Mr Bezos is blasting off from land he owns in West Texas; British Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson plans to launch tourists from southern New Mexico as early as next year; and Mr Musk is planning an eventual new SpaceX launchpad in extreme southern Texas, near South Padre Island. While this trio of space tycoons currently dominate the nascent industry, more companies will soon join the party. And the potential for what may eventually be daily launches carries major implications for air travel.
“Commercial space launch needs to be better integrated into the national airspace,” noted Caryn Schenewerk, Calififornia-based SpaceX’s senior counsel and director of government affairs. The Falcon 9 exceeds 18.28km on launch “in a quick 90 seconds”, with its reusable rocket boosters only requiring use of the airspace for one minute before landing.
Tim Canoll is president of Alpa, the union which represents 60,000 US and Canadian pilots. He cautions that work is needed to make the two industries operate seamlessly, saying on Tuesday at a hearing of a House Transportation and Infrastructure subcommittee in Washington that Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) operations don’t have “real-time data” on rockets’ movements.
The US licensed only 23 commercial launches last year, but that’s likely to increase. As the launch industry matures, the ultimate goal is to incorporate spacecraft into the routine flow of the 42,000 daily aircraft that the FAA controls, making a SpaceX Falcon 9 bound for the International Space Station no different than an American A321 headed to Miami. “The next step,” said Mr Canoll, is to put space travel and air travel together, so rockets “can operate along with us”.
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There is a lot of money at stake. Airlines say their average cost of “block time”, the industry metric for the period when an aircraft is taxiing or flying, was $68.48 per minute in 2017, or $4,109 hourly, led by crew and jet fuel expenses. The average delay of those 563 flights on February 6 was 8 minutes. For perspective, 10 flights delayed by 10 minutes costs about $70,000, Alpa noted. To make matters worse, the block time average is likely to rise this year - further aggravating airline executives and pilots whenever a SpaceX or United Launch Alliance rocket closes airspace.
“These restrictions have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” Alpa said in a white paper released on Tuesday.
The US airlines’ trade group, Airlines for America (A4A), has urged the FAA to “carefully consider the safety and efficiency impacts to the traveling public” in crafting an integration plan, according to spokeswoman Alison McAfee. For example, the group expressed “grave concerns” this month about a proposed Spaceport Colorado, which would be located at a small airport less than 10 miles south-east of Denver International, the fifth-busiest US airport.
This kind of uneasy coexistence has become the norm as the FAA continues to restrict airspace for commercial launches and re-entry, often for an hour or more. The closed space can extend for hundreds of miles along a rocket’s planned flight path, given the potential risks if a craft explodes in flight. That area will need to decrease over time to minimize airline disruptions, industry experts told Congress. Specifically, they said computer simulations of such disasters block off more airspace than necessary.
In March, the FAA formed an aviation committee to assemble recommendations for a regulatory approach to the commercial launch industry. The new rules will offer safety objectives while not dictating any vehicle design or operational mandates for space firms.
Tests have shown that rocket telemetry data can flow into current air-traffic control systems and give controllers real-time awareness on the vehicle’s movement. Of course, air traffic controllers direct an aircraft’s course and speed - a power they won’t have with space vehicles.
Audrey Powers, Blue Origin’s deputy general counsel, told the House panel “this is a very solvable problem”.
The industry and regulators need to develop tools to help further existing efforts to build a space data integrator system, designed to automate the flow of real-time rocket data and the release of blocked airspace because, she said, “we are smart enough to solve this problem.”