MIAMI – Last Friday, NASA and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) signed an MOU to collaborate and support commercial space activities. The MOU paves the way for Suborbital flights, which would let you travel halfway around the world in less than an hour.

A suborbital spaceflight is one where the spacecraft reaches outer space but its trajectory intersects the atmosphere so that it will not complete one orbital revolution, much like an artificial satellite, or reach escape velocity. Despite not quite getting into orbit, suborbital travelers would still technically enter space.

These flights would reach altitudes of up to 100 km. “That’s well beyond the Kármán line, the point above sea level that marks the start of space,” points out Jeremy White from WIRED. “Indeed, the US Department of Transport awards commercial astronaut wings to pilots and crew on board a licensed launch vehicle that exceeds 80.45km.”

The tech is still years behind, but SpaceX, Blue Origin and Virgin Galactic have raised the profile of the commercial space race. As White’s article title points out: forget supersonic, the future of super-fast flight is suborbital. The was two years ago.

Now, under the MOU, the FAA and NASA are setting the stage to cooperate on a stable launch and reentry industry framework between the regulations of the agencies to avoid conflicting requirements and multiple sets of standards.

The agencies also decided to advance a point-to-point commercial suborbital Pilot program with designated spaceports and airspace designs. Additionally, the MOU contains an agreement to exchange human spaceflight medical data and advance the safety of human spaceflight. The agreement did not come with an obligation of funds.

Suborbital flight. Photo: Virgin Galactic.

A Long-standing, Fruitful Partnership


NASA and the FAA have have worked together to support efforts to enhance commercial crew and cargo operations and strengthen the pace and reach of American aerospace developments. The successful Commercial Crew Program’s demonstration and operational missions to the ISS greatly benefitted from cooperation between the agencies.

The agencies also have a strong existing relationship on commercial suborbital spaceflight. NASA’s Flight Opportunities program relies on FAA licensing and regulations when fulfilling its mission to facilitate demonstrations of technologies through suborbital testing with industry flight providers.

As such, the MOU states that “NASA seeks to enter into public-private partnerships to improve airspace, passenger, and crew safety while enhancing the capabilities o f commercial suborbital point-to-point spacecraft.” The MOU is strictly for the management and planning purposes of each of the parties.

According to the document, the agencies aim to work together in the following areas to continue their cooperation and seek new collaborations.

1. Launch and Reentry Industry Framework

  • Provide a stable framework between NASA requirements and FAA regulations for the U.S. space launch industry, including human spaceflight, that is transparent, avoids conflicting requirements and multiple sets of standards, and encourages growth and innovation.
  • Increase transparency during the license review process by developing applicant guidance in the form of an Advisory Circular and interagency standard operating procedures for when agencies may seek additional information.
  • Develop and foster best practices for spacecraft conjunction assessment and on-orbit operations, including large constellations.
  • Advance the interests of those supporting private astronaut missions by collaborating to ensure consistency between NASA contract or agreement requirements and FAA statutes and regulations.
  • Advance the interests of U.S. commercial launch operators responsible for transporting domestic and international partner astronauts on suborbital crewed missions, as well as missions to low-Earth orbit (“LEO,” including to the International Space Station, and future private sector free-flying platforms).

2. Medical

  • Through their respective Chief Health and Medical Officer and Federal Air Surgeon or their designees, seek to share de-identified spaceflight clinical medical data, information, and knowledge on the biomedical (physiological and pathological) effects oforbital and suborbital spaceflight (long and short-duration) among occupants o f space vehicles and space habitats, including post-flight medical aspects.

3. Safety

  • Advance both public safety and human spaceflight safety.
  • Coordinate on lessons learned from mishap investigations.
  • Coordinate on an approach for sharing safety data with the public to enhance understanding of the known risks of space.
Virgin_Galactic_Scaled_Composites_348_White_Knight_2_Ryabtsev. Photo: Wiki Commons.

4. Suborbital Spaceflight

  • NASA seeks to work with and rely on FAA regulation and licensing of commercial suborbital spaceflight transportation providers to strategically invest in and facilitate rapid demonstration ofpromising space technologies including point-to-point transportation, test and qualify spaceflight hardware, and conduct human-tended microgravity research, astronaut training, and human spaceflight activities.
  • Seek out areas for collaborative research opportunities, jointly and with academia or industry when practical, to advance technologies and scientific knowledge that will benefit the commercial space transportation industry.
  • NASA and the FAA seek to advance the interests of a commercial suborbital point-to­ point pilot program with designated spaceports, airspace design, sequencing, launch and landing windows, etc.

5. Individual Preparation for Human Spaceflight

  • Collaborate on best practices for familiarization of participants with spaceflight safety factors (individual, operational, and environmental), individual evaluation/selection technique~, and personal qualifications for orbital and suborbital flights.

Featured image: The curvature of Earth as seen from a MiG-29 jet operated by Swiss aviation and adventure company MiGFlug, which operates short sub-orbital flights. Photo: MiGFlug

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