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Wonder why your flight is delayed? It could be due to a SpaceX launch

First stage can be seen returning to earth at right after separation during the Space X Falcon 9 roc
A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base lights up the Southern California sky in October.
(Al Seib / Los Angeles Times)
Washington Post

The launch of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket in February was a triumph of engineering and another celebrated coup for Elon Musk’s space company.

The airline industry says it was also a headache.

To accommodate the launch, and the possibility that the rocket could explode, the Federal Aviation Administration had to shut down a large swath of airspace for more than three hours, stretching from the Florida coast about 1,300 miles east over the Atlantic. That meant flights up and down the busy Eastern Seaboard had to go around the safety zone, causing delays and forcing planes to burn additional fuel.

Even though the rocket was out of the airspace in a mere 90 seconds before its three boosters flew back to Earth some eight minutes later, the “impact on the traveling public was real,” said Sharon Pinkerton, senior vice president for legislative and regulatory policy for Airlines for America, which advocates for the industry.

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As a growing number of commercial rocket companies ultimately plan to fly on a weekly basis, and from more places, airlines are concerned that they will significantly affect the already congested airspace, which handles more than 15 million airline flights annually.

Rockets have been blasting off into space since the dawn of the Space Age more than 60 years ago. But the launches have been relatively rare events — over its 30-year life span, the space shuttle took off just 135 times, an average of fewer than five times a year. So the effects have been limited — “small in comparison to other constraints in the system because there are so few of them,” according to Gregory Martin, a spokesman for the FAA. Still, he said, a single launch “can affect hundreds of flights.”

Now, a robust commercial space industry is growing fast, and it intends to fly much more frequently, forcing more airspace restrictions. Already, those closures “have led to extensive and expensive delays to commercial air traffic that are unsustainable,” the Air Line Pilots Assn. wrote in congressional testimony this year.

More than 7 million airline flights have been affected this year by weather, airspace congestion and other problems, forcing them to fly an additional 155 million miles, according to the FAA. But of those flights, only 1,400 were affected by spacecraft, which caused the airlines to fly an additional 70,000 miles.

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SpaceX flew 18 times last year and has completed a record 20 launches this year. Although the United Launch Alliance typically launches about 10 to 12 times a year, it is building a new rocket that would be able to fly “many more” missions annually, a spokeswoman said. Blue Origin, the space company founded by Jeff Bezos, ultimately wants to fly even more frequently than that.

The company is working toward flying tourists on suborbital missions that could take off on a weekly basis. Those missions, which fly straight up and down, require a relatively small airspace closure. But Bezos is also developing a monster rocket, known as New Glenn, that within a couple of years would fly from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station.

Ultimately, Bezos has said, the goal is to fly more than 100 times a year. Recently, a top Florida space official told SpaceNews that the Space Coast was preparing “to support 100 to 200 launches a year.”

A dramatic increase in launches could be fueled by plans to put up constellations of thousands of small satellites. SpaceX has won approval from the Federal Communications Commission to put up 12,000 small satellites that would beam down the Internet across the globe.

With other companies also planning to put up their own satellite constellations, there are a number of small rockets in development to meet that demand — all of which are expected to launch frequently through the airspace.

Recently, Rocket Lab announced it would fly from the Eastern Shore of Virginia. Its ultimate goal: 130 launches a year. Vector, which is planning its first flight next year, hopes to eventually launch 100 times a year.

Although years away, that many flights would lead to far more dependable vehicles, said Jim Cantrell the founder and CEO of Vector. “Think about those big airplanes, those 747s flying over Tokyo, and no one blinks an eye,” he said. “That’s because they are very reliable.”

A Falcon 9 SpaceX heavy rocket lifts off from pad 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral,
The first launch of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, in February from Cape Canaveral, Fla.
(John Raoux / Associated Press)
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Too much airspace closed off for too long

When determining how large of an area to shut down, and for how long, the FAA looks at all sorts of factors, such as the flight trajectory, the size and power of the rocket, and the worst-case scenario — what would happen if the rocket blew up and rained down debris like mortar fire.

That’s why many rocket launches to orbit occur at the coast — where they fly over water instead of populated landmasses. The Coast Guard also clears boats from the hazard zone.

But reentering spacecraft can fly over land. When the space shuttle Columbia came apart as it reentered the atmosphere in 2003, it littered debris across east Texas and into Louisiana. No one was hurt on the ground, and there was only minor property damage. But if it had broken up a little earlier, officials said, the falling debris could have come down on Dallas, with potentially much more severe consequences.

Safety “is always the highest priority,” said Tim Canoll, the president of the Air Line Pilots Assn. “They’ll default to the most safe operation, which of course yields these very large tracks of closed airspace for long periods of time.”

The two industries say they are now working closely together to help find a solution. And they agree that the FAA closes off more airspace than it should. What’s more, the agency relies on an antiquated system that can see only airplanes in real time and does not have the ability to track rockets and spacecraft as they move through the atmosphere.

Instead, the controllers have to manually enter the flight path data of a rocket in the airspace — a system that can be prone to error and that some derisively call “sneaker net,” meaning someone has to run that data across the room to the controllers.

“The FAA does not use the resources that are out there and available to effectively manage control of the airspace,” said Eric Stallmer, the president of the Commercial Spaceflight Federation. “There’s a great deal of innovation and technology that could help alleviate a great number of these problems.”

As a result, the FAA often shuts down the airspace for hours, even though the rockets streak through it in a matter of minutes, or even seconds.

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But now the FAA is working on a program, known as the Space Data Integrator, to better integrate rockets into the airspace by allowing the air traffic controllers to see them in real time, as they do airplanes. That would allow the FAA to more quickly open up the airspace and to break the closures up “into smaller chunks as [the rocket] passes through,” said Dan Murray, the manager of the FAA’s Space Transportation Development Division.

The agency has a prototype it is testing with SpaceX and Blue Origin launches, but he said it won’t be operational until 2021 or 2022.

“If the vehicle is only going to be passing through the airspace for 40 seconds, you don’t need to close that down for three hours,” Stallmer said. “You can really get it down to about 15 minutes.”

The FAA is also working on a system that would be able to almost instantaneously calculate the hazard area of an explosion. That would allow air traffic controllers to keep substantially more airspace open during a launch and then close additional space in the event of a rocket failure.

Murray said that safety is paramount and that airline pilots would have enough time to respond “between when the vehicle might fail and the debris actually falls.”

The FAA is also working toward boosting the automation that goes into the decisions air traffic controllers need to make, reducing workloads and the potential for human error. The agency is also working toward getting rocket telemetry and data directly to the airplane pilots, so they can see what’s happening for themselves.

But those measures are years away, officials said.

Rocket Lab’s custom Electron rocket is designed for launching small satellites into orbit.
Rocket Lab’s Electron rocket is designed for launching small satellites into orbit.
(Geoff Dale / Rocket Lab)

Weather, breakdowns cause more delays than rockets

Although the Falcon Heavy launch certainly caused delays for the airline industry, the week as a whole was not a great one at Orlando International Airport. The day before the launch, 74 flights were delayed an average of 43 minutes, according to FAA data. The day after, the number climbed to 95 flights with an average delay of more than an hour.

The day of the launch, 61 flights were delayed, fewer than any other day that week — a reminder, the space industry says, that weather and mechanical problems are far more likely to gum up the works than the relatively few rocket launches.

Unlike storms, which can pop up without warning, forcing air traffic controllers to scramble, launches are known well ahead of time, allowing the airlines to plan their routes accordingly to minimize the impact.

The launch of the Falcon Heavy was an extreme example — the first test flight of what is now the world’s most powerful rocket in operation. While the Falcon Heavy required a restricted area as long as the distance between Washington, D.C., and Dallas, SpaceX’s workhorse Falcon 9 rocket requires far less airspace to be closed and for a shorter amount of time.

But a study by the FAA found that the launch of a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on March 1, 2013, from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida caused planes to fly from 25 to 84 miles longer, burn 275 to 2,387 pounds more fuel, and fly from one to 23 minutes longer.

Blue Origin launches its suborbital rockets over a very sparsely populated area in west Texas. But even there, its launches have had an impact, particularly during the company’s first flights when it was still learning how best to communicate with air traffic controllers.

As the space industry grows, there are new spaceports and launch sites popping up around the country — 11 so far, including the Colorado Air and Space Port, the most recent to get an FAA license. The only problem, according to the airlines: It’s located just a few miles from Denver International Airport, a major hub that is the sixth-busiest airport in the country.

Having spaceflights so close to a major metropolitan airport poses “a safety risk to the public as well as to commercial aviation,” the pilots association wrote in a report. Sharing the airspace along the Eastern Seaboard is hard enough. Next to an airport “would add a level of complexity that we do not have the ability to manage within the current system.”

Others say the concerns are overblown. Before any spacecraft take off from the facility, the FAA still has to grant a launch license, and operators would have to show how they plan to protect people and property on the ground.

Further, the spaceport doesn’t intend to cater to big rockets, capable of flying to orbit, but rather to much smaller vehicles that would “take off like traditional airplanes using jet fuel and fly to a special-use airspace where rocket boosters launch the craft into suborbital flight,” it said in a news release.

Those kinds of spacecraft would be much easier to integrate into the airspace, said George Nield, the former head of the FAA’s Office of Commercial Space Transportation.

“There were a lot of people that said, ‘Oh my goodness, we’ll have lots of rockets close to Denver’ — and that is just not true,” he said. “Most of those spaceports will not be hosting large, dangerous rockets like shuttle or the Falcon Heavy. Instead, many are looking to the market for space tourism. Those are reusable, and many are about the same size of a small business jet, carrying between two and eight people.”


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