MIAMI – The US Federal Aviation Administration has finalized new regulations that streamline commercial spaceflight oversight. The new “Streamlining of Launch and Reentry Licensing Requirements” fall under a new Part 450 set of rules.

On October 15, US Secretary of Transportation Elaine L. Chao announced the historic publication of the FAA streamlined launch and reentry licensing requirements Final Rule for commercial space transportation launches and reentries. The new rule consolidates four regulatory parts and applies a single set of licensing and safety regulations for all types of vehicle operations. It also provides flexibility for operators to meet safety requirements.

The US airspace is the busiest and most complex in the world, and the FAA’s core mission is, of course, safety. When a commercial space vehicle is scheduled to fly, the FAA uses regulatory and operational means to segregate launch and reentry operations from other flights in the National Airspace System (NAS) to ensure safety.

As part of our Innovation series, Airways takes a closer look into the operator license and permit process, types of launch vehicles, and Part 450 regulations.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao. Photo: Wiki Commons

Official Comments on the Regulation Update


US Transportation Secretary Elaine L. Chao said, “This historic, comprehensive update to commercial space launch and reentry licensing requirements facilitates greater growth in this industry and helps America to maintain our #1 position in the world.”

On his part, FAA Administrator Steve Dickson said, “This rule paves the way for an industry that is moving at lightning speed. We are simplifying the licensing process and enabling the industry to move forward in a safe manner.”

The FAA also stated in a press release that this rule would modernize the way FAA regulated and licensed commercial space operations, allowing the booming aerospace industry “to continue to innovate and grow while maintaining public safety.”

Vehicle License Application Process. Image: FAA

Operator Licenses and Permits


As part of the licensing and permitting process, a commercial launch or reentry vehicle operator or site operator must enter into a letter of agreement with FAA air traffic control to define procedures for notification, communication, and contingencies. Until now, much of this activity was executed manually, using non-integrated systems and operation-specific procedures. 

Additionally, a launch site safety assessment (LSSA) will include an FAA assessment of a federal launch range to determine if the range meets FAA safety regulations since they were first published in 2006.

Furthermore, the Commercial Space Launch Amendments Act (CSLAA) of 2004 directs the FAA to make a determination on issuing an experimental permit within 120 days of receiving a complete application. The FAA currently has 180 days to make a license determination.

According to the FAA, if a commercial space vehicle does not exceed 150km and has a thrust less than 200,000 lb.-sec, this is classified as amateur rocketry and is not licensed by the FAA Office of Commercial Space Transportation and are not regulated under 14 CFR Chapter III; they are regulated under 14 CFR Chapter I, by the FAA Air Traffic Organization.

Image: SpaceX via Wiki Commons

Types of Launch Vehicles


Launch and reentry licenses are vehicle specific and give the authorization to conduct one or more launches or reentries having the same operational parameters of one type of launch or reentry vehicle operating at one launch or reentry site. The different types of commercial space vehicles are categorized by the FAA as follows:

Expendable launch system or expendable launch vehicle (ELV) can be launched only once, after which its components are either destroyed during reentry or discarded in space.

Reusable launch vehicle includes the recovery of some or all of the component stages.

Launch or reentry operator license authorizes you to conduct one or more launches or reentries having the same operational parameters of one type of launch or reentry vehicle operating at one launch or reentry site. The license identifies, by name or mission, each activity authorized under the license

Launch or reentry operator license authorizes you to conduct launches or reentries from one launch or reentry site within a range of operational parameters of launch or reentry vehicles from the same family of vehicles transporting specified classes of payloads or performing specified activities. An operator license remains in effect for two to five years from the date it is issued.

The National Space Council meeting in 2019. Photo: Wiki Commons

About Part 450


This rulemaking arose from work by the National Space Council that led to Space Policy Directive-2 (SPD-2) in May 2018, directing the US Department of Transportation to streamline the regulations overseeing commercial space launch and reentry licensing.

Part 450 will replace the current launch license rules of Part 415, the launch safety rules of Part 417, and the rules of Part 431 and 435, which apply to the launch and reentry of vehicles. According to flightglobal.com, Part 450 will give the FAA authority to issue single space operator licenses that permit multiple launches or re-entries from multiple launch-site locations.

According to the FAA, the final rule’s improved application processes allow:

  • A single operator’s license that can be used to support multiple launches or reentries from potentially multiple launch site locations.
  • Early review when applicants submit portions of their license application incrementally.
  • Applicants to negotiate mutually agreeable reduced time frames for submittals and application review periods.
  • Applicants to apply for a safety element approval with a license application, instead of needing to submit a separate application.
  • Additional flexibility on how to demonstrate high consequence event protection.
  • Neighboring operations personnel to stay during launch or reentry in certain circumstances.
  • Ground safety oversight to be scoped to better fit the safety risks and reduce duplicative requirements when operating at a federal site.

When Will Part 450 Become Effective?


According to the FAA website, the new rule will become effective 90 days after publication in the Federal Register. The FAA will seek public comment (for a period of 30 days) on three Advisory Circulars  (ACs) on the following topics:  High Consequence Protection (PDF)High Fidelity Flight Safety Analysis (PDF), and Computing Systems and Software (PDF).

The FAA will host a virtual Part 450 Workshop on November 4-6, 2020. The workshop will start with an overview of the rule that includes an introduction to some of the new pre-application consultation templates.

Global Partnership With Virgin Galactic. Photo: Wiki Commons.

Where Can I Learn More About Commercial Spaceflight?


The FAA commercial space transportation regulations are located in Chapter III, Parts 400 to 460, of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). The regulations implement statutory requirements.

Additionally, the Commercial Space Integration into the NAS (CSINAS) Concept of Operations (PDF) describes future commercial space operations, with an emphasis on managing the integration of launch and reentry vehicles as they transition through the National Airspace System.

Those interested in taking to the skies and beyond can also check the Commercial Space Transportation Regulations page.


Featured image: SpaceX Crew Dragon docking with the International Space Station. Photo: Wiki Commons

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