XX Section

Gridlock in the sky

The space industry wants to launch more rockets through an already congested airspace. The airline industry says that will lead to more flight delays.

On Feb. 6, SpaceX launched the Falcon Heavy, its biggest rocket yet.
During the launch, a large swath of airspace over the Atlantic was closed to planes for over three hours.
To avoid the restricted area, Delta Flight 422 from New York to San Juan had to change its course.
Similarly, other flights had to fly around the area, with delays and increased fuel consumption.
11:30 a.m.
6 p.m.
Launch at 3:45 p.m.

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket this year was a triumph of engineering and another celebrated coup for Elon Musk’s space company.

The airline industry says it was also a headache.

To accommodate the launch, and the possibility that the rocket could explode, the Federal Aviation Administration had to shut down a large swath of airspace for more than three hours, stretching from the Florida coast about 1,300 miles east over the Atlantic. That meant flights up and down the busy Eastern Seaboard had to go around the safety zone, causing delays and forcing planes to burn additional fuel.

Even though the rocket was out of the airspace in a mere 90 seconds before its three boosters flew back to Earth some eight minutes later, the “impact on the traveling public was real,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which advocates for the industry.

As a growing number of commercial rocket companies ultimately plan to fly on a weekly basis, and from more places, airlines are concerned that they will significantly affect the already congested airspace, which handles more than 15 million airline flights annually.

Rockets have been blasting off into space since the dawn of the Space Age more than 60 years ago. But the launches have been relatively rare events — over its 30-year life span, the space shuttle took off just 135 times, an average of less than five times a year. So the impacts have been limited — “small in comparison to other constraints in the system because there are so few of them,” according to Gregory Martin, a spokesman for the FAA.

Still, he said, a single launch “can affect hundreds of flights.”

The SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifts off from launchpad 39A at Kennedy Space Center on Feb. 6 in Cape Canaveral, Fla. It is the most powerful rocket in the world and carried a Tesla Roadster into orbit. (Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Now, a robust commercial space industry is growing fast, and it intends to fly much more frequently, forcing more airspace restrictions. Already, those closures “have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” the Air Line Pilots Association wrote in congressional testimony this year.

More than 7 million airline flights have been affected this year by weather, airspace congestion and other problems, forcing them to fly an additional 155 million miles, according to the FAA. But of those flights, only 1,400 were affected by spacecraft, which caused the airlines to fly an additional 70,000 miles.

SpaceX flew 18 times last year and has completed a record 20 launches this year. While the United Launch Alliance typically launches about 10 to 12 times a year, it is building a new rocket that would be able to fly “many more” missions annually, a spokeswoman said. Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeffrey P. Bezos, ultimately wants to fly even more frequently than that. (Bezos is founder and chief executive of Amazon and owns The Washington Post.)

The company is working toward flying tourists on suborbital missions that could take off on a weekly basis. Those missions, which fly straight up and down, require a relatively small airspace closure. But Bezos is also developing a monster rocket, known as New Glenn, that would fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station within a couple of years.

“One of the things I feel very, very strongly about is if you want to get good at spaceflight you have to practice,” Bezos told reporters during a tour of the company’s Kent, Wash., rocket factory in 2016.

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to fly more than 100 times a year. Recently, a top Florida space official told SpaceNews that the Space Coast was preparing “to support 100 to 200 launches a year.”

In recent years, entrepreneurial ventures such as SpaceX have fueled a rise in rocket launches from U.S. soil.

29

Entrepreneurial

ventures

2000

‘10

‘18

The establishment

NASA, defense contractors

11

In recent years, entrepreneurial ventures such as SpaceX have fueled a rise in rocket launches from U.S. soil.

29

Entrepreneurial

ventures

2000

‘10

‘18

The establishment

NASA, defense contractors

11

In recent years, entrepreneurial ventures such as SpaceX have fueled a rise in rocket launches from U.S. soil.

29

Entrepreneurial

ventures

‘10

2000

‘18

The establishment

NASA, defense contractors

11

In recent years, entrepreneurial ventures such as SpaceX have fueled a rise in rocket launches from U.S. soil.

29

Entrepreneurial

ventures

2000

‘10

‘18

The establishment

NASA, defense contractors

11

A dramatic increase in launches could be fueled by plans to put up constellations of thousands of small satellites. SpaceX has won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to put up 12,000 small satellites that would beam down the Internet across the globe.

With other companies also planning to put up their own satellite constellations, there are a number of small rockets in development to meet that demand — all of which are expected to launch frequently through the airspace.

Recently, Rocket Lab announced it would fly from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Its ultimate goal: 130 launches a year. Vector, which is planning its first flight next year, hopes to eventually launch 100 times a year.

While years away, that many flights would lead to far more dependable vehicles, said Jim Cantrell the founder and CEO of Vector.

“Think about those big airplanes, those 747s flying over Tokyo, and no one blinks an eye,” he said. “That’s because they are very reliable.”

Years away

When determining how large of an area to shut down, and for how long, the FAA looks at all sorts of factors, such as the flight trajectory, the size and power of the rocket, and the worst-case scenario — what would happen if the rocket blew up and rained down debris like mortar fire.

That’s why many rocket launches to orbit occur at the coast — where they fly over water instead of populated landmasses. The Coast Guard also clears boats from entering the hazard zone.

Companies in the Cosmos
NASA lost its ability to launch humans from U.S. soil when the space shuttle retired. Now, companies and billionaire entrepreneurs are defining a new space age.

But reentering spacecraft can fly over land. When the space shuttle Columbia came apart as it reentered the atmosphere in 2003, it littered debris across East Texas and into Louisiana. No one was hurt, and there was only minor property damage. But if it had broken up a little earlier, officials said, the falling debris could have come down on Dallas, with potentially much more severe consequences.

Safety “is always the highest priority,” said Tim Canoll, the president of the Air Line Pilots Association. “They’ll default to the most safe operation, which of course yields these very large tracks of closed airspace for long periods of time.”

The two industries say they are now working closely together to help find a solution. And they agree that the FAA closes off more airspace than it should. What’s more, the agency relies on an antiquated system that can see only airplanes in real time and does not have the ability to track rockets and spacecraft as they move through the atmosphere.

Instead, the controllers have to manually enter the flight path data of a rocket in the airspace — a system that can be prone to error and that some derisively call “sneaker net,” meaning someone has to run that data across the room to the controllers.

“The FAA does not use the resources that are out there and available to effectively manage control of the airspace,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “There’s a great deal of innovation and technology that could help alleviate a great number of these problems.”

As a result, the FAA often shuts down the airspace for hours, even though the rockets streak through it in a matter of minutes, or even seconds.

But now the FAA is working on a program, known as the Space Data Integrator, to better integrate rockets into the airspace by allowing the air traffic controllers to see them in real time, as they do airplanes. That would allow the FAA to more quickly open up the airspace and to break the closures up “into smaller chunks as [the rocket] passes through,” said Dan Murray, the manager of the FAA’s Space Transportation Development Division.

The agency has a prototype it is testing with SpaceX and Blue Origin launches, but he said it won’t be operational until 2021 or 2022.

“If the vehicle is only going to be passing through the airspace for 40 seconds, you don’t need to close that down for three hours,” Stallmer said. “You can really get it down to about 15 minutes.”

The FAA is also working on a system that would be able to almost instantaneously calculate the hazard area of an explosion. That would allow air traffic controllers to keep substantially more airspace open during a launch and then close additional space in the event of a rocket failure.

Murray said that safety is paramount and that airline pilots would have enough time to respond “between when the vehicle might fail and the debris actually falls.”

The FAA is also working toward boosting the automation that goes into the decisions air traffic controllers need to make, reducing workloads and the potential for human error. The agency is also working toward getting rocket telemetry and data directly to the airplane pilots, so they can see what’s happening for themselves.

But those measures are years away, officials said.

‘Manage together’

While the Falcon Heavy launch certainly caused delays for the airline industry, the week as a whole was not a great one at Orlando International Airport. The day before the launch, 74 flights were delayed an average of 43 minutes, according to FAA data. The day after, the number climbed to 95 flights with an average delay of more than an hour.

The day of the launch, 61 flights were delayed, fewer than any other day that week — a reminder, the space industry says, that weather and mechanical problems are far more likely to gum up the works than the relatively few rocket launches.

Unlike storms, which can pop up without warning, forcing air traffic controllers to scramble, launches are known well ahead of time, allowing the airlines to plan their routes accordingly to minimize the impact.

“We don’t have any control over where the thunderstorms are. That’s a force of nature,” Canoll, the head of the Air Line Pilots Association, told Congress last summer. “This is something we can mange together.”

The launch of the Falcon Heavy was an extreme example — the first test flight of what is now the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. While the Falcon Heavy required a restricted area as long as the distance between Washington, D.C., and Dallas, SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket requires far less airspace to be closed and for a shorter amount of time.

Areas closed to air traffic

Falcon Heavy, Feb. 6

1,300 miles long

Cape

Canaveral

Falcon 9, Nov. 15

590 miles

Areas closed to air traffic

Falcon Heavy, Feb. 6

Cape

Canaveral

1,300 miles long

Falcon 9, Nov. 15

590 miles

But a study by the FAA found that the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on March 1, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida caused planes to fly between 25 and 84 miles longer, burn between 275 and 2,387 pounds more fuel, and fly between 1 and 23 minutes longer.

If space travel remained an infrequent, special circumstance, it might not be a problem, the airline industry says. But more launches would “likely place pressure on regulators and operators to reduce the size of airspace protection zones, so as to minimize commercial space’s impact on commercial aviation,” a report from the Air Line Pilots Association said. “Without proper mitigations in place, the elevated levels of risk may not be acceptable.”

Blue Origin launches its suborbital rockets over a very sparsely populated area in West Texas. But even there, its launches have an impact, particularly during the company’s first flights when it was still learning how best to communicate with air traffic controllers.

As the space industry grows, there are new spaceports and launch sites popping up around the country—11 so far, including the Colorado Air and Space Port, the most recent to get an FAA license. The only problem, according to the airlines: It’s located just a few miles from Denver International Airport, a major hub that is the sixth-busiest airport in the country.

Having spaceflights so close to a major metropolitan airport poses “a safety risk to the public as well as to commercial aviation,” the pilots association wrote in its report. Sharing the airspace along the Eastern Seaboard is hard enough. Next to an airport “would add a level of complexity that we do not have the ability to manage within the current system.”

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport Complex

Wallops Flight

Facility

Colorado Air & Space Port

Vandenberg

AFB

Cape Canaveral

Reagan Test Site

Sea Launch

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport

Complex

Wallops Flight

Facility

Colorado Air & Space Port

Vandenberg

AFB

Reagan Test Site

Sea Launch

Cape Canaveral

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport Complex

Sea Launch

Reagan Test Site

Wallops Flight

Facility

Colorado Air & Space Port

Vandenberg

AFB

Mojave Air and Space Port

Cape Canaveral

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport Complex

Sea Launch

Reagan Test Site

Colorado Air & Space Port

Wallops Flight

Facility

Vandenberg

AFB

Mojave Air and Space Port

Cape Canaveral

Blue Origin launch site

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport Complex

Sea Launch

Reagan Test Site

Wallops Flight

Facility

Colorado Air & Space Port

Vandenberg

AFB

Blue Origin launch site

Mojave Air & Space Port

Cape Canaveral

Future SpaceX launch site

FAA-licensed launch sites

Sites where companies have active licenses to conduct launch activities

Pacific Spaceport Complex

Sea Launch

Reagan Test Site

Wallops Flight

Facility

Mojave Air and Space Port

Colorado Air & Space Port

Vandenberg AFB

Spaceport America

Blue Origin

launch site

Cape Canaveral

Future SpaceX launch site

Others say the concerns are overblown. Before any spacecraft take off from the facility, the FAA still has to grant a launch license, and operators would have to show how they plan to protect people and property on the ground.

Further, the spaceport doesn’t intend to cater to big rockets, capable of flying to orbit, but rather to much smaller vehicles that would “take off like traditional airplanes using jet fuel and fly to a special-use airspace where rocket boosters launch the craft into suborbital flight,” it said in a news release.

Those kinds of spacecraft would be much easier to integrate into the airspace, said George Nield, the former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“There were a lot of people that said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ll have lots of rockets close to Denver’ — and that is just not true,” he said. “Most of those spaceports will not be hosting large, dangerous rockets like shuttle or the Falcon Heavy. Instead, many are looking to the market for space tourism. Those are reusable, and many are about the same size of a small business jet, carrying between two and eight people.”

While one day there may be a huge growth in the number of launches, today they are tiny when compared with the number of airline flights.

That’s why both sides say it’s important to find a solution now — before spacecraft are competing for more and more airspace.

“Now is the time to figure out when to integrate,” Canoll said. “Not when they are launching five times a day and we’re saying, ‘No, you can’t close that airspace again.’ ”

Christian Davenport

Christian Davenport covers the defense and space industries for The Washington Post's Financial desk. He joined The Post in 2000 and has served as an editor on the Metro desk and as a reporter covering military affairs. He is the author of "The Space Barons: Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and the Quest to Colonize the Cosmos" (PublicAffairs, 2018). Follow

John Muyskens

John Muyskens is a graphics editor at the Washington Post specializing in data reporting. Follow

Youjin Shin

Youjin Shin works as graphics reporter at The Washington Post. Before joining The Post, she worked as multimedia editor at the Wall Street Journal and a research fellow at the MIT SENSEable city lab. Follow

Monica Ulmanu

Monica Ulmanu is an assignment editor for the Washington Post. She joined The Post in 2018 from the Guardian newsroom in London. Follow

About this story

Sources: launch vehicle trajectory data from Flight Club; air traffic data from Flightradar24; data about launches from 2000 from Bryce Space and Technology; Notices to Airmen and licenses from the Federal Aviation Administration.

Share

Most Read

Follow Post Graphics