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FAA to require reentry vehicles licensed before launch

Updated 3:15 p.m. Eastern with Varda statement.

WASHINGTON — The Federal Aviation Administration is revising its licensing regulations to prevent a repeat of a situation last year where a spacecraft launched without approvals to return.

In a notice published in the Federal Register April 17, the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation announced it will no longer approve the launch of spacecraft designed to reenter unless they already have a reentry license. The office said that it will, going forward, check that a spacecraft designed to return to Earth has a reentry license as part of the standard payload review process.

In the notice, the FAA said that decision was linked to safety concerns of allowing spacecraft to launch without approvals to return. “Unlike typical payloads designed to operate in outer space, a reentry vehicle has primary components that are designed to withstand reentry substantially intact and therefore have a near-guaranteed ground impact as a result of either a controlled reentry or a random reentry,” it states.

The FAA stated that an uncontrolled reentry, such as one that would occur if a controlled reentry is not authorized, “will likely result in risks above those accepted for FAA licensed-reentry operations.”

“Therefore, it is crucial to evaluate the safety of the reentry prior to launch,” the agency concluded in the notice. “This way, the FAA is able to work with the reentry operator to meet the required risk and other criteria.”

The notice did not state what prompted the change. However, it comes after Varda Space Industries launched its first spacecraft in June 2023 but did not get a reentry license for it until February after months of effort and an earlier, rejected reentry license application. Varda’s capsule safely landed at the Utah Test and Training Range a week after receiving the license.

In an April 10 briefing at the 39th Space Symposium, Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, said that policy changes were planned given the experience with Varda.

“We did allow them to launch on a SpaceX Falcon vehicle without a reentry license,” he said of Varda. “There were some lessons that we learned from that. We will probably shortly have a policy statement that will come out from our office that will speak to reentry and how we will tackle that challenge of companies needing to have their reentry licenses prior to launch.”

In the case of Varda’s mission last year, he said the company was under a tight schedule for their launch, so the FAA allowed the company to launch “at risk” without a reentry license. “We probably won’t let companies launch at risk because there’s some things from a public safety standpoint that we learned from the Varda experience.”

“Last year, FAA gave Varda formal, written permission to launch W-1 and Varda complied with all requirements in place to do so,” the company said in a statement to SpaceNews. “Once FAA issued a license early this year, our flight-proven reentry system safely and successfully landed at the Utah Test and Training Range. Varda will continue working with FAA and other federal regulators as their policies regarding reentry operations continue to evolve.”

Commercial spacecraft reentries remain rare. The FAA currently lists only two active reentry licenses, one for Varda and the other for SpaceX’s Dragon spacecraft. However, the FAA expects demand for those licenses to increase as more companies seek to return cargo or crew from space.

“We’re seeing more and more companies want to do that,” Coleman said. “I expect to see a ramp up, which is why we have to really get out in front and clarify our policies around reentry and what’s needed prior to launch.”

One example if that growing interest is another startup, Inversion, which announced April 17 it would launch its first reentry vehicle on SpaceX’s Transporter-12 mission, currently planned for October. That tech demo spacecraft, called Ray, will perform tests in orbit before being commanded to perform a controlled reentry and splash down off the California coast. Inversion did not disclose the status of its licensing efforts for that mission.

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