So You Want to Launch a Rocket? The FAA is Here for You

I was a space lawyer for the Federal Aviation Administration. I worked in the Chief Counsel’s office and supported the Office of Commercial Space Transportation (AST).

A number of years ago a whole passel of school kids showed up for A Day At The FAA. One lucky little girl, maybe a fifth grader, got assigned to me. We chatted in my office for a while. I explained how the FAA licenses and regulates commercial space launch and reentry, and the operation of launch and reentry sites (aka “spaceports”). I explained how any U.S. citizen launching anywhere in the world needs a launch license from the FAA (which explains why Michael Flynn’s Firestar has to be alternate future history, although I didn’t get into that since I figured she hadn’t read it yet). I may even have mentioned how a person who launches without a license can get heavily fined, with the fines being adjusted for inflation every four years at that time. I talked about launch safety, and how cool it is that in the United States you achieve safety by exploding the rocket. This kid asked a few questions, so I knew we were communicating. She seemed to be taking it in, but you never know.

Then we went downstairs.   I had a meeting in AST and she sat in on that. Then I took her to meet some of the engineers I worked with, where they were toiling away at their desks. AST’s space is pretty fun for a kid. It’s full of posters of launch vehicles, air-launched rockets, carrier aircraft that look like science fiction, boring carrier aircraft that don’t, sea-launched rockets, more rockets, and a line drawing of a Celtic spaceport (yes, it did look like crop circles, why do you ask?). One of the engineers pointed my young guest to a poster of two kids bending over a toy Estes model rocket. The two kids looked happy. “What,” asked the engineer of my visitor, “are these two doing wrong?” (The kids were leaning over the rocket. That’s bad.)

Wide-eyed, she looked up at him and swallowed nervously, but said very clearly, “They don’t have a license.”

Four grown men just about fell out of their chairs laughing. I was filled with pride, of course, and they quickly explained the safety issue, that she’d been hanging out with me too long, that launching rockets was lots more fun than the boring, paper-work obsessed lawyer had made it sound, and that they were totally impressed with her. The kid was happy.

The point is, you do need federal permission to launch a rocket from the United States. And, if you are a U.S. citizen or other entity you need FAA approval to launch anywhere in the world. The Commercial Space Launch Act says so. You also need permission to reenter a reentry vehicle or operate a spaceport. The one thing my protégé had wrong, however, is that you don’t need a license—or even an experimental permit—to launch a toy rocket or even a somewhat large amateur rocket.

So, if you want to launch a rocket, first, go do all your rocket science. That’s the easy part. Now, open the Code of Federal Regulations (CFR). Congress passed the first version of the Commercial Space Launch Act in 1984, but the FAA’s regulations implementing that very broadly worded law may be found in Title 14, chapter III of the CFR. (I share these acronyms not to be annoying, but so you will recognize them as you pursue your research, because lots of other people use them.) The regulations get very detailed, and are full of design and test requirements for the flight termination system you will need to destroy your rocket in case it goes off course. You need a flight termination system if you are launching a large expendable launch vehicle (ELV), the kind that jettisons its component stages in the ocean on its way to orbit, but if you are flying people on board the FAA may try to be more flexible. (The Shuttle used to have a flight termination system). You will also have to launch far enough away from other people that you meet the FAA’s risk criteria. If you have a really big rocket this likely means you should launch over the ocean. We took the risk criteria from the Air Force, which called them the “expected casualty” numbers. I meekly suggested calling them something else but got overruled.

Anyway, back to your license application. Make sure you have filled it out completely enough for the FAA to get started working on it. If you do, the clock starts ticking on the FAA, which has 180 days to complete a review where it makes sure you are capable of satisfying the regulations. If you provide only a semi-finished application, the FAA can stop the clock. You will be annoyed but will get to complain how the government is slowing you down.

Then there’s the National Environmental Policy Act, which requires environmental impact statements and environmental assessments for major federal actions, which includes licensing. If you launch from an existing spaceport you won’t have to do too much work for an environmental review. If you go from a new place of your own, you might be out there counting desert tortoises before you can launch to establish an environmental baseline. You have been warned.

You need a payload review. If your payload isn’t licensed by the FCC or NOAA, the FAA gets to look at it for whether there are any national security or foreign policy concerns.   (The latter is something I’ve been writing and testifying about a lot, but you’re the launch operator with plenty of other things to worry about, so I won’t go into that today.)

Do you want to put people on your rocket? There are legal requirements for that, too. There are three types of people you might take to space or on a suborbital jaunt: space flight participants, crew, and government astronauts. The FAA isn’t allowed to regulate how you design or operate your rocket to protect the people on board until 2023, unless there has been a death, serious injury, or a close call. Because the crew are part of the flight safety system, the FAA determined it could have regulations in place to protect the crew. That those requirements might also protect space flight participants is purely a coincidence.   However, just because the FAA can’t tell you what to do to protect the space flight participants doesn’t mean you are out of its clutches. You have to provide the crew and space flight participants—but not the government astronauts because they already know how dangerous this is—informed consent in writing. You have to tell them the safety record of your vehicle and others like it, that the government has not certified it as safe, and that they could be hurt or die.

Once you get your license, you have to buy insurance or show the FAA that you have enough money to cover the damage you may cause to third parties or U.S. government property. Also, you have to sign waivers of claims with the government, all your customers (each person who has put an object on your vehicle as a payload), crew, space flight participants, and your contractors and subcontractors. Everyone, to put it in largely accurate terms, has to agree not to sue everyone else.

At this point, your eyes may be glazing over. You might think to yourself that you will incorporate as a foreign entity and go launch somewhere else like they did in Firestar, and get away from all of this. Not so fast. Firestar was alternate future history, and the people who administer the dread ITAR, the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, will want to take a look at you if you try to provide your launch technology to a foreign entity, which is what you have become if you incorporate in another country.

When you decide that’s too hard, the FAA will be there for you. Welcome back.