FAA to require licenses for reentry vehicles

Credit: NASA

Federal regulations continue to try to keep pace with the space industry. On April 17, the Federal Aviation Administration issued a notice in the Federal Register stating that the agency will not authorize the launch of a reentry vehicle as a payload without appropriate reentry authorization. The new policy is effective immediately.

“Launch of a reentry vehicle without an authorization for reentry would pose safety concerns that are designed to be addressed by the reentry licensing process,” the notice says.

FAA listed four primary concerns associated with the launch of a reentry vehicle without authorization. First, the vehicles are often substantially intact and prepared to withstand atmospheric reentry, meaning they have a “near-guaranteed ground impact.” Second, random reentry of a vehicle that has not been authorized will likely result in risks above those accepted for FAA. Third, the new regulations allow the operator and FAA to work together to reduce reentry risk. Finally, this new step allows for a payload review for the launch vehicle and reentry vehicle.

A special class of vehicles

Kelvin Coleman, FAA associate administrator for commercial space transportation, discussed reentry licenses at the 39th annual Space Symposium. Currently, FAA has only granted reentry licenses to two companies: one to SpaceX for its Dragon spacecraft, and one to Varda Space Industries for its W-Series 1 capsule.

Varda only received its reentry license in 2024 after launching a spacecraft and return capsule without securing a reentry license for the capsule. As a result, the capsule remained in orbit longer than expected while the company waited for FAA’s reentry approval. Although the notice does not mention the Varda capsule, Coleman acknowledged the new policy is connected to the Varda situation.

The policy update also comes amid a rapid increase in FAA space licenses, according to the administration’s commercial space data. There were eight licensed launches in 2013 compared to 117 licensed launches in 2023. Similarly, the administration lists one licensed reentry in 2013 compared to seven licensed reentries in 2023.