You can usually blame an airline flight delay on a handful of the usual suspects, like bad weather, mechanical issues, and traffic on the tarmac. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there is now a surprising new source of disruption to air travel: rocket launches.
In recent weeks, flights to and from Florida have seen a sharp increase in delays. Palm Beach International Airport recorded more than 100 delays or cancellations April 15 only. (Some of them can be attributed to an increase private and charter flights.) Things are even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were nearly 9,000 flights delayed in March. Last week, federal regulators meet to discuss these disruptions, which reflect many of the current challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, jet fuel price hikethe Covid-19 pandemic and a airline worker shortage. But in Florida, a growing number of space launches — especially those from the Cape Canaveral area — are also complicating flight schedules.
“They are closing significant airspace on the east coast before, during and after a launch. This traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, executive vice president of finance and purchasing at Tampa International Airport, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five pound bag, so you’re further crowding an already tight airspace on Florida’s west coast.”
While at present these delays are concentrated in Florida, this problem could worsen, especially as the number of spaceflights increases and new launch facilities, or spaceports, open in other parts of the country. The situation is also a sign that the arrival of the second space age could have an unexpected and even extremely inconvenient impact on daily life.
The spacecraft problem is relatively simple: Air traffic controllers currently have to ground or reroute flights during launches. To pierce the atmosphere and reach outer space, rockets must first fly through airspace monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control centers and air navigation throughout the country. Although these rockets usually only spend a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris, such as pieces rocket Material, either because they are designed to discharge their payloads in multiple stages, or because the mission failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9also enter this airspace.
To make sure planes aren’t hit by this debris, the FAA typically restricts flights from traveling through a rectangle-shaped block of sky that can range from 25 miles to several hundred miles in length, depending on the type. launch. Typically, there is about two weeks notice before each launch, and during that time air traffic controllers can develop alternative arrangements for flights scheduled that day. While a launch takes place, aviation officials track the vehicle’s entry into space, then wait for word from experts who analyze in real time the trajectory of debris created by the launch. If there is debris, air traffic controllers wait until it falls back to Earth, which usually takes 30 to 50 minutes. Once this happens, scheduled flights can resume their normal flight paths.
A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch in 2018 – the same flight that sadly turned Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster in space — impacted 563 flightscreated 4,645 minutes late in totaland planes forced to fly extra 34,841 nautical miles, according to FAA data. That extra mileage adds up quickly, especially considering the extra fuel and carbon emissions involved. Researchers at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Daytona Beach, Florida, estimate a single space launch could cost airlines this much like $200,000 in extra fuel by 2027and up to $300,000 in additional fuel over the next decade.
The FAA insists it is making improvements. Last year, the agency started using a new tool, the spatial data integrator, which more directly shares spacecraft data during launches and allows the agency to reopen airspace more quickly. The FAA also says it has successfully reduced the duration of launch-related airspace closures from about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency was able to reduce this time to just 30 minutes.
“An end goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, route diversions, fuel burn, and emissions for commercial airlines and other users of the national airspace system as the frequency of commercial space operations are increasing,” the agency said in a statement.
And the frequency of launches is accelerating. There were 54 licensed space launches supervised by the FAA last year, but the agency think this number could increase in 2022 thanks to the rise of space tourism, the growing demand for Internet satellites and the next space exploration missions. These launches could also become more frequent in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which are often built on or close to existing airports, ramp-up of operations. The FAA has already authorized more than a dozen different spaceport locations in the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexicowhere Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as the Colorado Air and Space Port, a space transportation facility located just six miles from Denver International Airport.
The role of the FAA in the development of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. Beyond the certification and authorization of launches, the responsibilities of the FAA also include the study of environmental impact space travel and the supervision of new spaceports. The agency may have to monitor the safety of space passengers too. This is in addition to all the other new types of flying vehicles that the FAA will also need to monitor, such as drones, flying air taxis, supersonic jetsand even, perhaps, space balloons.
“Where things are contested is more: how do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is responsible for?” Ian Petchenik, who leads communications for aircraft flight tracking service Flightradar24, told Recode. “Things are going to get a lot more complicated, and having a way of determining who has priority, how much space they need and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much more important long-term issue.”
While we are still in the early days of the commercial space industry, some have already expressed concern that the agency is not moving in the right direction. The Air Line Pilots Association warned in 2019 that the FAA’s approach could become a “cost-prohibitive method of sustaining space operations”, and urged the agency to continue reducing the duration of airspace closures during space launches. At least one congressman, Rep. Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves many more people.
Beyond air flight delays, the burgeoning space travel industry has already influenced everything from the reality TV shows we can watch to types of jobs we can get international politics and — due to the industry’s potentially huge carbon footprint — the threat of climate change. Now it looks like the commercial space industry could also be influencing the timing of your next trip to Disney World.