Developing new aerospace vehicles is an expensive proposition in terms of both time and money. Boeing has spent an estimated $32 billion developing the 787. Rockets are no different: NASA’s Space Launch System has an estimated development cost north of $30 billion. Even lean SpaceX spent around $300 million to develop its Falcon 9 rocket. Despite the fact that NASA estimated it would have spent more than a billion dollars to develop Falcon 9 in a traditional manner, $300 million is still nothing to sneeze at!
The time and money spent developing a new launch vehicle is not spent exclusively on engineering, machining, and testing new parts, however. Some of that money and a significant amount of time are spent going through the FAA launch license process. Traditionally, the FAA currently has restricted the types of launch vehicles which are eligible for licensing, making it difficult for some small launch vehicle operators to fly NASA-sponsored and other payloads. Recently, the FAA proposed loosening these restrictions in a manner that will allow many emerging aerospace companies to voluntarily apply for licensing. Specifically, the FAA will begin allowing operators of Class III amateur rockets to apply for launch licenses.
An amateur Class III rocket is"an unmanned rocket...having a combined total impulse of [between 40,960 Newton-seconds (9,208 pound-seconds) and] 889,600 Newton-seconds (200,000 pound-seconds)" and "launching no higher than 150 kilometers...."
So why is voluntary licensing of Class III rocket operations a big deal?
Despite the name, these rockets are extremely capable, lucrative launch vehicles and licensing opens more commercial opportunities. For example, UP Aerospace’s Spaceloft family of vehicles are Class III rockets, however they have the capability of flying higher than 150 km. Since 2006, UP Aerospace has conducted six launches on this class of vehicle, servicing over fifty customers under waivers.
Clearly, there is a market for commercial suborbital flight. Suborbital flights to 100+ km offer access to microgravity environments, provide test beds for satellite hardware, and carry novelty items to space. Suborbital rockets may also carry x-ray telescopes and enable atmospheric science experiments.
NASA’s Flight Opportunities Program (FOP), a major purchaser of suborbital flights, requires launch vehicle operators to be licensed. Until the FAA proposed relaxing license restrictions, Class III rockets fell outside the scope of the FAA’s licensing regulations which impaired the ability of otherwise capable spaceflight companies to compete for NASA FOP business and other commercial payloads.
In addition to providing commercial flight services, Class III rockets may serve as a stepping stone in the development cycles of many emerging aerospace companies. Both Masten Space Systems and Armadillo Aerospace developed and operated several Class III rockets during the course of their development cycles. These vehicles are still in use today!
Allowing operators of Class III rockets to voluntarily apply for and receive launch licenses smooths the licensing path of commercial spaceflight because emerging companies may become acquainted with the licensing process earlier in the development cycle, they can potentially remain under the same license by upgrading their Class III rockets to more powerful platforms while staying in the same “family of vehicles”, and they may more easily carry payloads for paying customers.
Earlier, voluntary access to the FAA licensing process helps companies ensure that the paperwork is ready at the same time the rocket is ready. Obtaining a launch license is a six-step process which can last up to six months after a complete application is filed. Preparing a complete application is no walk in the park either. Some emerging space companies have taken a year or more to implement procedures, compile hardware specifications, and conform the necessary documents for a complete launch license application. The FAA estimates that rocket operators will spend between $80,000 and $200,000 a year securing and maintaining their launch licenses.
The FAA is charged with "promot[ing] economic growth and entrepreneurial activity" in space and "encourage[ing] the United States private sector to provide launch vehicles" and services. Allowing emerging companies operating smaller rockets to apply for licenses enables the commercialization of rockets which service underserved markets like suborbital research and cubesat delivery. This is a step in the right direction and an example of the FAA promoting the growth of commercial spaceflight.