Is it a Reentry Vehicle if it Doesn’t Return Substantially Intact?

Let’s say you plan to bring something in from outer space.  You might wonder whether it needs a reentry license from the Federal Aviation Administration.  The answer will depend on what you bring back. (It will also depend on a lot of other factors, such as your location and whether you are a citizen of the United States).  If you plan to reenter a reentry vehicle you do need an FAA reentry license.   When Congress gave the FAA authority over reentry of a reentry vehicle, it defined a reentry vehicle to mean “a vehicle designed to return from Earth orbit or outer space to Earth, or a reusable launch vehicle designed to return from Earth orbit or outer space to Earth, substantially intact.”  If your object doesn’t satisfy the definition, you don’t need a reentry license.  This definition excludes, for example, satellites.

To qualify as a reentry vehicle, the vehicle needs to be designed to return form Earth orbit or outer space substantially intact, regardless of whether it’s a simple reentry vehicle or a reusable launch vehicle.  We know that the requirement that it be substantially intact applies to both reusable and non-reusable vehicles because we all remember the grammar rule about how if a modifier comes after a list of two things it modifies only the second thing unless there’s a comma.  Because of the location of the comma, “substantially intact” applies to both types of vehicles.  One thing we can tell from this definition is that reentry of most satellites would not need an FAA reentry license.

Easy cases. How do we figure out if a manufacturer designed a vehicle to return substantially intact?   Let’s take the easy scenarios first.  If one operator returns a capsule from space, lands it in the ocean, and pulls a bunch of rocks or science experiments out of it, it’s not a stretch at all to say that vehicle has returned substantially intact.  At the other end of the spectrum, another vehicle might take trash out of an orbiting habitat and be designed to burn up in the atmosphere.  It won’t need a license because it won’t return substantially intact.

Hard case.  Of course, real life will offer more difficult examples.  What do we say about a vehicle with a surviving chunk of titanium that reaches the surface of Earth ?  Titanium can survive reentry, but it’s not like the vehicle itself will come back substantially intact.   Satellites exist which have pieces that can survive the rigors of atmospheric reentry yet they are not designed to survive.  The risk numbers for Envisat, for example, indicated as much.  No, the definition requires the vehicle to be designed to return substantially intact.  A chunk of titanium alone hardly counts as a vehicle.  What if other bits of the vehicle and the chunk of titanium survive?  Then we have to figure out if those count as a vehicle and as “substantial.”

These types of questions will likely get worked out on a case by case basis.