“It’s a very exciting day for us,” Duane Freer, manager of space operations at the FAA, said in an interview on Wednesday, just hours before the mission’s scheduled launch, which was later postponed because of weather. “This has been a long time in the making. There’s a lot on the line for the country.”
NASA officials rescheduled the launch for Saturday, pending weather.
The postponement didn’t faze Freer and his team, who are accustomed to such last minute changes.
After all, the FAA has long played key role in space launches, managing of airspace to ensure safe takeoffs and landings. Wednesday’s scheduled launch from Kennedy Space Center in Merritt Island, Fla., was no different. In preparation, the FAA imposed temporary flight restrictions in a 40 nautical mile area around the launch site. Similar restrictions will be put into place for Saturday’s possible launch.
The launch is also an opportunity for the FAA to test new tools it’s developed to carry out its traditional role of managing the nation’s airspace.
With a growing number of companies seeking to commercialize space travel, the agency has focused on developing new systems for more efficiently managing airspace. In the past, FAA may have had to close airspace for days around a launch site in preparation. Today while those closures may last only hours, they still can prove disruptive to air traffic. The FAA’s air traffic controllers coordinate up to 43,000 flights in the U.S. a day. At any given time, there can be 5,000 aircraft in the skies.
A FAA program known as the Space Data Integrator (SDI), however, seeks to integrate commercial air traffic with commercial space traffic by allowing air traffic controllers to see rockets just as they do airplanes. The shift would mean the agency could monitor traffic with great accuracy, potentially reducing the length of time that airspace must be closed off for space launches.
“The past paradigm is that you just close off areas of airspace for hours at a time,” Freer said.
But once SDI becomes operational, expected later this year, Freer said those closures may shorten because “we’re going to be able to be more dynamic because we’ll be able to see the vehicle and see where it is and we’ll be able to react quicker.”
Freer is part of a team of air traffic and commercial space transportation experts working on SDI.
Four hours before launch, members of the Joint Space Operations Group (JSpOG,) made up of representatives from FAA’s air traffic organization and office of commercial space transportation, are expected to arrive at the Warrenton center to begin coordinating with air traffic control facilities and with the 45th Space Wing, the military unit responsible for all space launch operations from the East Coast.
Freer said planning for the Space X launch began several weeks in advance with the development of an airspace management plan. The FAA works with partners including Airlines for America, the International Air Transport Association and the National Business Aircraft Association on a plan that ensures a safe launch that also seeks to limit the impact on the commercial aviation system.
For the launch of Space X’s Dragon capsule, SDI will operate in shadow mode, allowing FAA’s team to determine whether it was conforming to expectations, or as Freer put it, “Doing what we expect it to do.”
Telemetry data received from the launch and reentry operator, which will allow FAA’s team to watch the rocket’s progress, will also help experts more quickly identify potential “hazard areas” — another key component of ensuring safe pre- and post-launch operations. Should there be any issues with the launch, JPpOG will be poised to act.
The team will be closely monitoring an array of large screen displays and monitors that show aircraft hazard areas and live air traffic in areas around the launch site. They use handsets to communicate with each other.
Given concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, the team will practice social distancing. The room also is cleaned before and after the missions.