Throughout the world, the space industry is booming. In the United States, the federal government and private companies have their eyes set on sending humans to Mars, while President Donald Trump has expressed interest in creating a new “Space Force”. In China, scientists have their eyes set on sending missions to the Moon. Australia just created a space agency for the first time.
The growth of the space industry is also visible through the number of rocket launches over the past few years. In 2015, only eight orbital launches were carried out in the United States. In 2017, that number rose to twenty-one. The US government has a goal to incorporate spacecraft into the routine flow of aircraft in the United States, which can include 42,000 aircraft per day.
Space travel is exciting without a doubt. The promise of new discoveries, both in the physical universe and in the technology that discovers it, is cause for great anticipation. Yet, the space industry has great implications for commercial aviation.
If there’s one thing that rocket launches take a lot of, it’s space. When a rocket launches, it requires empty airspace to avoid causing major accidents. The force generated by a rocket is enough to severely damage airliners, and the cryogenic substances (the smoke-like substance that is omitted directly after a rocket launch) reduces visibility throughout a vast area.
The Federal Aviation Administration released a report written by the US Airline Pilots Association (ALPA) that revealed that an increase in rocket launches causes an increase in closed airspace, leading to increased flight delays, reroutings, or cancellations, as well as higher fuel usage, all of which increased operating costs.
Commercial aircraft usually fly in the airspace between 18,000 and 60,000 feet above the ground, but rockets usually spend little time in this area. In February 2018, when SpaceX launched its Falcon Heavy, the rocket spent no more than 2 minutes 30 seconds in this airspace.
However, regardless of how much time a rocket spends in airspace used by commercial planes, delays can last for over 30 minutes, or, in some cases, multiple hours. When the Falcon Heavy rocket launched, 563 flights were delayed, and additional flights were required to reroute their flight paths.
In addition, in 2014, an FAA report found that a space launch in Florida caused flight delays of up to 23 minutes with reroutes close to 85 miles, resulting of thousands of pounds extra of fuel burned. These numbers are sure to be higher with the launches of space shuttles, which may very well be used within the next decade to send people to Mars or the Moon.
According to the ALPA’s report, SpaceX’s rocket launches can impact roughly 5,000 square nautical miles of airspace. The Falcon Heavy launch caused a cumulative 4,645 minutes of flight delays, costing airlines $318,089, according to Aerotime News Hub.
As the space industry continues to grow, new plans will continue to matriculate. The most active launch site in the United States is Cape Canaveral, a US Air Force post outside of Miami, Florida. Both SpaceX, which is owned by Elon Musk, and Blue Origin LLC, which was started by Jeff Bezos, operate out of this base. Cape Canaveral is one of 22 usable launch site in the United States, and Bloomberg reports that new locations are being developed.
“These [airspace] restrictions have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” the ALPA said in its report. “We are smart enough to solve this problem.”
Tim Canoll, the President of the ALPA, has urged Congress to pass legislation to ensure that space operations are safely mixed with commercial flight operations.
“As the U.S. airline industry works to meet future passenger and shipper demand while spaceflight operations continue to increase, the aerospace industry must work together to create policies, regulations, and procedures to share resources efficiently and most of all, safely,” Canoll said in June.
Canoll’s concerns have been echoed by commercial aerospace companies.
“Commercial space launch needs to be better integrated into the national airspace,” said Caryn Schenewerk, SpaceX’s Senior Counsel and Director of Government Affairs.
Commercial airlines won’t be solely focused on commercial space ventures for long. Governments around the world, such as the United States and China, among others, are developing plans to send manned missions into space. Space shuttles are generally much larger than the rockets that are currently being sent into space, and the shuttles have potential to cause greater disruption.
Preparation for a space shuttle launch takes time, and airspace around the launch site could potentially be closed for hours before a shuttle is launched. This could greatly increase the number of delayed or rerouted flights, sending added operational costs for airlines sky high and causing headaches for passengers and crews alike.
With a renewed space age approaching, governments must decide how to deal with the effects that space travel has on commercial aviation. Constant interruptions by space operations will cause major loses for the aviation industry, and could even cause passengers to opt for alternative modes of transport if major interruptions due to space activity become too commonplace.
In the United States, steps are already being taken. Last March, the FAA formed a special committee to collect recommendations for a regulatory approach to the commercial space industry. The primary focus of the regulations, according to the FAA, is to provide safety guidelines for launches. The board, at the time of writing, has no plans to dictate vehicle design or operational mandates for commercial space firms.
Featured image by SpaceX