You can usually blame an airline flight delay on some of the usual suspects, like bad weather, mechanical problems, and lane traffic. 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 on April 15 alone. (Some of this can be attributed to an increase in private and charter flights.) Things are even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were nearly 9,000 flight delays in March. Last week, federal regulators met to discuss the disruptions, which reflect many of the current challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, rising jet fuel costs, the Covid-19 pandemic and a shortage of airline workers. But in Florida, a growing number of space launches — especially those from the Cape Canaveral area — are also complicating flight schedules.
“They are closing down significant airspace on the east coast before, during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, Tampa International Airport’s executive vice president of finance and purchasing, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re filling an already tight airspace on Florida’s west coast.”
While these delays are currently concentrated in Florida, this problem could get worse, 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 everyday life.
The spacecraft problem is relatively simple: air traffic controllers currently have to land or redirect 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 navigation airlines across the country. While these rockets typically spend only a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris such as used rocket hardware because they are designed to dump their payloads in multiple stages or because the mission has failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, such as SpaceX’s Falcon 9, are also re-entering this airspace.
To ensure that planes are not 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. There is typically 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 and await the word of experts who analyze in real time the trajectory of the 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. When this happens, scheduled flights can resume their normal flight paths.
A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a launch of the 2018 SpaceX Falcon Heavy — the same flight that infamously shot Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space — impacted 563 flights, created a total delay of 4,645 minutes, and forced the planes to fly an additional 34,841 nautical miles, from 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 that a single space launch could cost airlines up to $200,000 in extra fuel by 2027 and up to $300,000 in additional fuel over the next decade.
The FAA insists it is making improvements. Last year, the agency began using a new tool, Space 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 managed to reduce this time to just 30 minutes.
“An ultimate goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, route deviations, fuel burn and emissions for commercial airlines and other users of the national airspace system as the frequency of commercial space operations is increasing,” the statement said. agency in a statement.
And the frequency of releases is accelerating. There were 54 licensed space launches supervised by the FAA last year, but the agency believes that number could increase in 2022 thanks to increased space tourism, growing demand for internet satellites and space missions. Such launches may also become more common in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which are usually built at or near existing airports, ramp up operations. The FAA has already authorized more than a dozen spaceport locations across the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as the Colorado Air and Space Port, a transportation facility. space located just six miles from Denver International Airport.
The FAA’s role in developing the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. In addition to certifying and authorizing launches, the FAA’s responsibilities also include studying the environmental impact of space travel and overseeing new spaceports. The agency will also have to monitor the safety of space passengers. This is in addition to all the other new types of flying vehicles the FAA will also have to keep an eye on, such as drones, flying air taxis, supersonic jets and even possibly space balloons.
“Where things are contested most is: how do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is responsible for?” Ian Petchenik, who leads communications for the Flightradar24 aircraft flight tracking service, told Recode. “Things are going to get a lot more complicated, and having a way to determine who has priority, how much space they need and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much more important issue in the long run.”
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 shutdowns during space launches. At least one congressman, Representative Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves many more people.
In addition to air flight delays, the burgeoning space travel industry has already influenced everything from the reality show we can watch and the types of jobs we can get to 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 may also be influencing the timing of your next trip to Disney World.