How SpaceX and Elon Musk could delay their next flight

How SpaceX and Elon Musk could delay their next flight

You can usually blame an airline flight delay on a handful of the usual suspects, like bad weather, mechanical problems, and tarmac traffic. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there’s now a surprising new source of disruption to air travel: rocket launches.

In recent weeks, flights into and out of 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 these 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 these outages, which reflect many of the current challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, the rising cost of jet fuel, the Covid-19 pandemic and the shortage of airline workers. But in Florida, a growing number of space launches, particularly those in the Cape Canaveral area, is also complicating flight schedules.

“They close down major airspace on the East Coast before, during and after a launch. That traffic has to go somewhere,” John Tiliacos, executive vice president of finance and acquisitions at Tampa International Airport, told Recode. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re further congesting an already restricted airspace on Florida’s west coast.”

While these delays are concentrated in Florida right now, this problem could get much 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 straightforward: Air traffic controllers currently have to land or divert flights during launches. To break through the atmosphere and reach outer space, rockets must first travel through airspace monitored by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees air traffic control centers and flight navigation across the country. While these rockets typically only spend a few minutes in this airspace, they can create debris, such as worn-out pieces of rocket hardware, either because they’re designed to shed their payloads in multiple stages or because the mission has failed. Reusable boosters used by some spacecraft, like SpaceX’s Falcon 9, also re-enter this airspace.

To make sure planes don’t get hit by this debris, the FAA generally prevents flights from traveling within a rectangle-shaped block of sky that can stretch anywhere from 40 to several hundred miles long, depending on the type of launch. There is typically about two weeks’ notice before each launch, and during that time, air traffic controllers can develop alternate arrangements for flights scheduled on that day. While a launch is taking place, aviation officials track the vehicle’s entry into space and then wait for news from experts who analyze the trajectory of debris created by the launch in real time. If there is debris, air traffic controllers wait until it falls back to Earth, which usually takes 30 to 50 minutes. Once that happens, scheduled flights can return to 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 infamously launched Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, affected 563 flights, caused 4,645 total minutes of delays, and forced planes to fly an additional 34,841 nautical miles. , according to FAA data. That extra mileage adds up fast, especially when you consider 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 additional fuel by 2027 and up to $300,000 in additional fuel in the following decade.

The FAA insists it is making improvements. Last year, the agency began using a new tool, the Space Data Integrator, which more directly shares data about spacecraft during launches and allows the agency to reopen airspace more quickly. The FAA also says it has successfully reduced the length of launch-related airspace closures from about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency has been able to reduce that time to just 30 minutes.

“An ultimate goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, rerouting, fuel burn and emissions for commercial airlines and other users of the National Airspace System as the frequency of space operations increases. commercials,” the agency said in a statement.

A chart depicting the growing number of licensed rocket launches in the US.

faa.gov

And the frequency of releases is increasing. There were 54 licensed space launches overseen by the FAA last year, but the agency believes that number could grow in 2022 thanks to increased space tourism, growing demand for internet satellites and upcoming space exploration missions. Such launches could also become more common in other parts of the country as new spaceports, which are often built at or near existing airports, ramp up operations. The FAA has already authorized more than a dozen different spaceport locations in the United States, including Spaceport America in New Mexico, where Virgin Galactic launched its first flight last summer, as well as Colorado Air and Space Port, a transportation facility. located just six miles from the Denver International Airport.

The FAA’s role in the rise of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. Beyond certifying and authorizing launches, the FAA’s responsibilities also include studying the environmental impact of space travel and overseeing new spaceports. Eventually, 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 planes, and even possibly space balloons.

“Where things are questioned is more about: How do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is in charge of?” Ian Petchenik, who heads communications for the aircraft flight tracking service Flightradar24, told Recode. “Things are going to get a lot more complicated, and having a way to figure out who gets priority, how much space they need and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much bigger question in the long run.”

While we are still in the early days of the commercial space industry, some have already raised concerns that the agency is not headed in the right direction. The Air Line Pilots Association warned in 2019 that the FAA’s approach could become a “prohibitively expensive method of supporting space operations” and has urged the agency to continue reducing the length of airspace closures during launches. spatial. At least one member of Congress, Rep. Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA is prioritizing commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves significantly more people.

Beyond air flight delays, the burgeoning business of space travel has already influenced everything from the reality television we can watch and the types of jobs we can get to international politics and, because of the footprint of Potentially huge carbon from industry, the threat of climate change. Now it appears that the commercial space industry could also influence the timing of your next trip to Disney World.

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