For decades, airplanes and rockets have shared the skies in peace — but recently, satellite launches have started to irk the aviation industry. Whenever a rocket soars to space, it must pass through the airspace that thousands of pilots fly through every day, sometimes causing planes to reroute to avoid a spacecraft zooming into the sky. Now, the aviation industry wants to make some changes, ones that commercial space advocates say could fundamentally change the launch industry.

The cadence of orbital launches has grown in recent years, which means the airspace is being closed more frequently for spaceflight, causing more pilots to divert from their pre-approved routes and take less efficient paths to their destinations. And with the advent of reusable rockets, pilots now have to make way for spaceflight reentries, too — when a rocket comes back from space after launch and lands on the ground. Experts from both industries are trying to figure out how to coexist without too much disruption. But they’re at odds on how to move forward.

This topic was the subject of a Senate hearing last week. Representatives for the commercial space industry argued that the Federal Aviation Administration needs technology upgrades, which will allow air traffic controllers to incorporate real-time data from rocket launches into flight patterns and will only shut down the airspace for brief periods of time for each flight.

“The FAA uses decades-old analysis and air traffic control tools to segregate the airspace around a launch or reentry,” Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation, which represents dozens of commercial spaceflight companies, said at the hearing. “Simply stated: we close too much airspace for too long without providing real-time information about the launch and reentry to the air traffic controllers.”

Air traffic controllers in Miami, Florida
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Getting new technology in the hands of the FAA is something that the aviation industry agrees with, too. But aviation lobbyists also want to take things a step further. Right now, commercial space is regulated under Title 51 in the United States Code, which doesn’t require the same regulatory and safety standards as aviation. But the aviation industry wants commercial space to be subjected to the same safety regulations as the airlines —under Title 49 — giving the FAA full authority over rocket licensing and safety as if they were airplanes.

“For the time that commercial space occupies the National Airspace System, we want them to be subject to the full authority of the Federal Aviation Administration to regulate them for safety and efficiency,” Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy at Airlines for America, tells The Verge.

Commercial space advocates say that would be extremely limiting to an industry that has not been around as long as commercial aviation. And the rules and regulations that guide airplanes could conflict with how rockets are developed. “We’re not aviation. We’re commercial space transportation,” Jim Muncy, founder of PoliSpace, a space policy consulting agency, tells The Verge. “If you put us under aviation law, you’re basically saying we have to meet potentially conflicting sets of regulations and conflicting sets of goals.”

Heavy handed

The moment that seemingly sparked this battle for the skies was the inaugural launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy, which caused planes near Florida to reroute for a big chunk of time in February of 2018. The flight, the very first test launch of the vehicle, had a federally approved launch window that lasted for two and a half hours, from 1:30PM ET to 4:00PM ET. The rocket could have taken off at any time within that stretch. The Falcon Heavy didn’t need the entire time to launch, though, as it takes just about 10 minutes or so to get to space. But SpaceX wound up using most of that time, as strong winds in the upper atmosphere kept delaying the takeoff to later in the window. So instead of launching right at 1:30PM ET, the rocket launched at 3:45PM ET.

Meanwhile, the FAA did not have the ability to reopen the airspace during the delays. So the air around the launch site remained restricted, while the Falcon Heavy sat on the ground. As a result, flights around the Orlando area suffered disruption. Up to 563 flights experienced delays that day, and planes had to fly an extra 34,841 nautical miles in total, according to the FAA. “Think of all those extra emissions,” says Pinkerton.

Elon Musk’s Roadster, which launched to space on the Falcon Heavy’s first flight.
Image: SpaceX

It also didn’t help that the Falcon Heavy’s payload was SpaceX CEO Elon Musk’s car. “If you actually look at the data for the week, weather impacts and impacts from the air traffic control system itself having problems made the total amount of delays worse every other day that week,” says Muncy. “But because it was Elon Musk launching his Roadster to Mars, which might have attracted some media attention, a whole lot of airlines said ‘What the eff?’ Why are we delaying our planes for this?’”

The Falcon Heavy flight was an anomaly in the launch world, though. Its airspace restrictions are larger since it’s a bigger rocket than most, and the launch window was longer too since the flight wasn’t tied to any specific orbit or mission. “That was a test launch,” argues Muncy. “They had a longer window for the launch than most of SpaceX’s launches.” Plus, most companies try to launch at the very beginning of a launch window if possible, unless there are weather concerns or technical problems.

And although launches are increasing in frequency, commercial spaceflight numbers still pale in comparison to the average amount of airline flights per day. It took more than a year for the Falcon Heavy to fly again. In 2018, a record total of 31 rockets launched to orbit from the United States, while 14 vehicles made reentries back to Earth. A handful more flew to suborbital space and back. That’s a small number next to the 15.5 million aviation flights that occurred in the US in 2018.

Times are changing

Launches are increasing, though, and as launch costs come down, the barrier to spaceflight will become lower than it has been in decades. “We’re anticipating rapid growth in commercial space,” says Pinkerton. “And that’s great. But with that, we can’t continue to have these types of impacts.”

The Commercial Spaceflight Federation agrees that changes do need to be made. Right now, the Air Force’s Joint Space Operations Group gets updates on launch times over the phone or by email and then sends that information, on paper, to the FAA, according to the agency. This can result in what happened during the first Falcon Heavy flight: planes have to divert over airspace that doesn’t need to be cleared. That’s why the FAA is working on a new technology called the Space Data Integrator, or SDI. It’s a software system that will gather data about launches and reentries, based on radar and sensor measurements. That information will then be sent to computers, which can calculate the amount of airspace area that needs to be closed to make sure airplanes are safe.

“When deployed, SDI will enable the FAA to safely reduce the amount of airspace that must be closed to other users and more quickly release airspace that is no longer a risk as a mission progresses,” Wayne Monteith, the FAA’s associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said during last week’s hearing.

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