Office of Commercial Space Transportation

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The Office of Commercial Space Transportation (generally referred to as FAA/AST or simply AST[1]) is the branch of the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that approves any commercial rocket launch operations—that is, any launches that are not classified as model, amateur, or "by and for the government."


Originally an agency of the Department of Transportation, the office was transferred to the Federal Aviation Administration in 1995.[2] It was headed by Patti Grace Smith until 2008, during which time the office developed significant regulation that made commercial launches possible.[3] Under her administration, the F.A.A. licensed the Mojave Air & Space Port in California to become the first inland commercial spaceport in the country. SpaceShipOne, the first privately developed manned vehicle to reach space, was launched from this facility in 2004.[4]


Under international law, the nationality of the launch operator and the location of the launch determines which country is responsible for any damage that occurs.[5] Due to this, the United States requires that rocket manufacturers and launchers adhere to specific regulations to indemnify and protect the safety of people and property that may be affected by a flight. The Office of Commercial Space Transportation was created by the Commercial Space Launch Act of 1984 to meet this need. The office also regulates launch sites, publishes quarterly launch forecasts, and holds annual conferences with the space launch industry. The office is headed by the Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (FAA/AST), who is currently Dr. George C. Nield. They are located in Washington, DC, and ultimately operate under the Department of Transportation.

A map of all licensed spaceports in the USA, as of February 2010

AST is responsible for licensing private space vehicles and spaceports within the US. This is in contrast with NASA, which is a research and development agency of the U.S. Federal Government, and as such neither operates nor regulates the commercial space transportation industry. The regulatory responsibility for the industry has been assigned to the Federal Aviation Administration, which is a regulatory agency. NASA does, however, often use launch satellites and spacecraft on vehicles developed by private companies.

According to its legal mandate,[6] AST has the responsibility to:

  • regulate the commercial space transportation industry, only to the extent necessary to ensure compliance with international obligations of the United States and to protect the public health and safety, safety of property, and national security and foreign policy interest of the United States;
  • encourage, facilitate, and promote commercial space launches by the private sector;
  • recommend appropriate changes in Federal statutes, treaties, regulations, policies, plans, and procedures; and
  • facilitate the strengthening and expansion of the United States space transportation infrastructure.


AST is organized into five divisions:

  • Space Transportation Development Division (AST-100)
  • Licensing and Evaluation Division (AST-200)
  • Regulation and Analysis Division (AST-300)
  • Safety Inspection Division (AST-400)
  • Operations Integration Division (AST-500)

Rocket categories[edit]

For a vehicle to legally be considered a rocket, its "thrust must be greater than lift for the majority of powered flight".[7] Commercial rockets fall into two basic categories: Amateur and Licensed.


An amateur rocket has a total impulse of 200,000 lb-s or less, and cannot reach an altitude of 150 km above sea level. If a rocket exceeds these capabilities (or if it has a person on-board), it is considered licensable.[8]

Amateur rockets come in 3 classes, and the regulations applied to each class increase as you move up through the classes. The following list describes the general regulations.

Class 1—Model Rockets do not require approval to be launched, and are legal so long as they are launched in a safe manner.

Class 2—High-Power Rockets require approval to enter National Airspace. Information regarding the rocket and where it will be launched must be provided to obtain this approval.

Class 3—Advanced High-Power Rockets require approval to enter National Airspace. More advanced information about the rocket (such as the dynamic stability profile) and operations is required to obtain this approval.

Once a rocket exceeds amateur rocket criteria, it is considered "Licensed," which means it requires either a License or Experimental Permit in order to fly.

Experimental Permits are authorizations given to reusable rockets to fly in a specific area, called the "Operating Area." This authorization is optional, but it is easier to obtain than a license. It is easier because unlike a license, an experimental permit does not require an Expected Casualty analysis, nor a full System Safety Process. However, the permit is also more limited. Among other things, a permitted rocket cannot be used to carry people or things for compensation. Examples of permitted rockets include all participants in the X Prize Cup.

Licensed launch vehicles[edit]

A Licensed Rocket encompasses all other commercial rockets, including anything non-amateur, orbital, or large expendable launch vehicles (ELVs). Examples of licensed rockets would include all Atlas, Delta, and Titan rockets. These rockets are subject to the US Code of Federal Regulations (14 C.F.R., Chapter III, §400-460).. Launches that are by and for the government are exempted from this regulation. NASA's shuttle and military rockets, for example, do not require a license to launch. (They are required to meet NASA and Air Force regulations instead.) A Commercial Launch License must be obtained from FAA/AST before any rocket in this category may be launched from any US territory or if launch is conducted by a U.S citizen.

Launch site operations[edit]

Launch sites, in addition to the launch vehicles that operate there, must also receive authorization from AST. The launch site regulations are contained in Part 420.

General Requirements[edit]

In general, when licensing launch operations, AST uses a 3-pronged approach to safety: Quantitative Analysis, System Safety Process, and Operating Restrictions.

Quantitative Analysis[edit]

AST will generally require that the operator perform what's known as an "Ec Analysis." Ec ("Eee-sub-cee") is shorthand for Expected Casualty – a calculation of the probability of casualty to any and all groups of people within the maximum dispersion of the vehicle. In the simplest case, a rocket will have containment, which means that there are no people or property located within the maximum range of the vehicle. Most rockets, however, cannot achieve containment, and must be regulated using a risk-based approach.

A calculation of risk takes into account various failure modes of the rocket, various locations of the people, various shelters in which they reside, and various manners in which they can be hurt (direct impact, blast overpressure, toxic cloud, etc.). The calculation is very involved, even for relatively small rockets. In all cases, the assumptions in the calculation become the limits on the day of launch. For example, if a vehicle is analyzed for malfunction turn due to thrust offset, and the assumed wind in the model is 30 knots (56 km/h), then one of the GO/NO GO criteria on the day of launch will be a <30 knot wind. For AST, as it is with most government agencies, Unknown = No.[citation needed]

System Safety Process[edit]

Certain rockets are hard to quantify in an analysis. Newer vehicles especially do not have the history required to demonstrate reliability, and thus the uncertainty in quantitative analyses can be substantial. In all cases, but especially in cases where quantitative uncertainty is at a maximum, AST will require that the launch operator follow a System Safety Process.

A System Safety Process (SSP) can come in many forms, and generally involves "Top-Down" analyses (such as Fault Trees), "Bottom-Up" analyses (such as a Hazard Analysis or Failure Modes & Effects Analysis (FMEA)), and various other analyses as required (Fishbone). Rocket systems, failure modes, external hazards, and everything else are analyzed with an eye towards public safety. From these systematic analyses, mitigation measures - or actions taken to reduce the risk - are developed. Just as in the quantitative analysis, these mitigation measures become GO/NO GO criteria on the day of launch. AST will generally require verification (evidence of an operator using mitigation measures) for every safety-critical system on the vehicle.[citation needed]

Operating Restrictions[edit]

In addition to all the operating restrictions developed in the quantitative analyses and system safety processes, AST requires other restrictions be followed. These are described in the Code of Federal Regulations. An example of an operating restriction is a Collision Avoidance Analysis (COLA) for rockets operating above 150 km – to preclude collisions with manned or manable space structures (such as the ISS or Shuttle).[citation needed]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Associate Administrator for Commercial Space Transportation (AST)
  2. ^ "About the Office". 
  3. ^ Langer, Emily (June 10, 2016). "Patti Grace Smith, government champion of commercial spaceflight, dies at 68". Washington Post. Retrieved 24 June 2016. 
  4. ^ Roberts, Sam (June 7, 2016). "Patti Grace Smith, Champion of Private Space Travel, Dies at 68". New York Times. 
  5. ^ Articles VI and VII of the 1967 United Nations Outer Space Treaty.
  6. ^ 51 U.S.C. § 50901, Commercial space launch activities: Findings and purposes[
  7. ^ Article from Space Review
  8. ^ Amateur Rocket Regulations Final Rule

External links[edit]