How SpaceX and Elon Musk could delay your next flight

You can usually blame the delay of an airline flight on a handful of common suspects, such as bad weather, mechanical problems, and asphalt traffic. But thanks to the rise of the commercial space industry, there is now an amazing new source of disruption to air travel: rocket launches.

In recent weeks, flights to and from Florida have experienced a sharp increase in delays. Palm Beach International Airport recorded more than 100 delays or cancellations on April 15 alone. (Some of them can be attributed to an increase in private and charter flights.) Things are even worse at Jacksonville International Airport, where there were about 9,000 flight delays in March. Last week, federal regulators met to discuss these disruptions, which reflect many of the ongoing challenges facing the aviation industry, including storms, rising fuel costs for aircraft , the Covid-19 pandemic and the shortage of airline workers. But in Florida, a growing number of space launches, especially in the Cape Canaveral area, are also complicating flight schedules.

“They close a 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 purchasing at International Airport, told Recode. Tampa. “It’s like putting 10 pounds of potatoes in a five-pound bag, so you’re even congesting an already limited airspace off the west coast of Florida.”

While these delays are concentrated in Florida right now, this problem could get much worse, especially as the number of spaceflights increases and as 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 uncomfortable impact on everyday life.

The problem with spacecraft is relatively simple: Air traffic controllers currently have to land or redirect flights during launches. In order to break through the atmosphere and reach outer space, rockets must first travel through the airspace that is overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), which oversees the control centers of air traffic and flight navigation throughout the country. Although 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 are designed to remove their payloads at various stages, or because the mission has failed. The reusable enhancers used by some spacecraft, such as the SpaceX Falcon 9, are also re-entering this airspace.

To ensure that aircraft are not affected by such debris, the FAA typically prevents flights from traveling within a rectangular block of sky that can extend from 40 to several hundred miles long, depending on the release type. There is usually about two weeks notice before each launch, during which time air traffic controllers can develop alternative arrangements for scheduled flights that day. While a launch is taking place, aviation officials track the vehicle’s entry into space and then wait for news from experts to analyze the trajectory of the debris created by the launch in real time. If there is debris, air traffic controllers stay on the ground until it falls back to Earth, which typically takes 30 to 50 minutes. Once that happens, regular flights can return to their normal flight routes.

A single space launch can disrupt hundreds of flights. For example, a 2018 SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch, the same flight that fired Elon Musk’s Tesla Roadster into space, affected 563 flights, created a total of 4,645 minutes of delay, and forced aircraft to fly an additional 34,841 nautical miles, according to FAA data. This extra mileage builds up quickly, especially if you take into account the extra fuel and carbon emissions it entails. 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 extra fuel over the next 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 duration of airspace closures related to the launch of about four to just over two hours. In some cases, the agency has been able to reduce this time to just 30 minutes.

“An ultimate goal of the FAA’s efforts is to reduce delays, route diversions, fuel burns, and emissions from commercial airlines and other users of the National Airspace System as the frequency of airspace increases. commercial space operations, “the agency said in a statement.

A graph representing the growing number of US-licensed rocket launchers.

And the frequency of releases increases. Last year, there were 54 licensed space launches overseen by the FAA, 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. These launches could also be more common in other parts of the country, as new spaceports, which are often built at or near existing airports, increase operations. The FAA has already authorized more than a dozen different space port locations in 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 space transportation facility located right. six miles from Denver International Airport.

The role of the FAA in the rise of the commercial space industry is becoming increasingly complex. Beyond the issuance of certifications and licenses, the FAA’s responsibilities also include studying the environmental impact of space travel and monitoring new spaceports. Finally, the agency will also have to monitor the safety of space passengers. This adds to all the other new types of flying vehicles that the FAA will also have to watch out for, such as drones, flying air taxis, supersonic planes, and possibly possibly space balloons.

“Where things stand is more: how do all these different types of vehicles fit into the system that the FAA is in charge of?” Ian Petchenik, who runs Flightradar24’s aircraft flight tracking communications communications, told Recode. “Things will get a lot more complicated and having a way to find out who has priority, how much space they need and what the safety margins are, I think, is a much bigger 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 going in the right direction. The Airline Pilots Association warned in 2019 that the FAA’s approach could become a “prohibitive method of supporting space operations” and urged the agency to continue to reduce the duration of airspace closures. airspace during space launches. At least one member of Congress, MP Peter DeFazio, is already concerned that the FAA will prioritize commercial spaceflight launches over traditional air travel, which serves many more people.

Beyond the delays in air flights, the growing space travel business has already influenced everything from the reality of television we can see and the types of jobs we can achieve to international politics and the footprint of Potentially huge carbon industry, the threat of climate change. Now it looks like the commercial space industry could also influence the timing of your next trip to Disney World.

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